Aging Waterways, Out of the Box Solutions

Posted: April 18, 2017 at 10:15 am

Denise Rucker Krepp, EMR USA

On March 28, 2017, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to examine the United States’ increasing dependence on foreign sources of minerals and opportunities to rebuild and improve the country’s supply chain.[1]  Senator Murkoswi, the Chair of the committee, sought input from witnesses on ways to increase domestic production and decrease the time it takes to review permits. She was told that  a seven- to ten-year period isn’t sustainable.

Then Senator Debbie Stabenow asked a transportation question; she wanted to know how important it was from a mining perspective to have well functioning locks and dams. How will the aging infrastructure impact the ability to move goods?

The witness from the U.S. Geological Survey told the Senator that his agency doesn’t focus on transportation infrastructure.  Senator Stabenow, like many in the room, stared at him in surprise. Shouldn’t the federal agency responsible for mapping, collecting, monitoring, and providing science about natural resources be interested in how these resources are moved?

How the Federal Government Spends Its Time

Having worked in three different federal agencies—the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Maritime Administration, I know that no agency will examine the impact of aging infrastructure unless or until it falls within its core mission mandates.   The Army Corps of Engineers—the agency responsible for the depth of the nation’s rivers and operational capability of its locks—will not welcome this interest.  Instead, they’ll fight to keep them out.

At the Transportation Security Administration, I spent over six months “negotiating” memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with agencies within the Department of Transportation.  The purpose of the MOUs: to outline the roles and missions of each agency and explain how each agency would relate to the others.

I then spent a year fighting with the Department of Energy over a Congressional mandate.  Meanwhile in the words of the 1927 song by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein “… Ol’ man river…keeps rolling along…” And in the case of the Mississippi River, rolling along includes carrying silt from the upper portion of the river to the lower portion making it harder to navigate.

Now, I’m talking about bureaucratic infighting because the time spent on these petty squabbles can be better used repairing the aging locks and improving the navigability of the country’s waterways.

Aging Infrastructure

I recently did a quick Google search to get information about one of the country’s major waterways, the Mississippi River, starting with the National Park Service website. I was amazed by the data it provided.  The Mississippi River’s watershed stretches from the Allegheny Mountains to the Rocky Mountains.  Ninety-two percent of the country’s agricultural exports are grown in the Mississippi River basin.  These goods are then moved via barges for sale in other countries.[2]

While the National Park Service website does not report the amount of metallic material transported along the Mississippi River, one can find where minerals are mined and metals are produced in the 2017 USGS Mineral Commodity Summary.[3]  Lead, zinc, copper, and silver are mined in Missouri.  Sulphur is found in Louisiana, Illinois, and Mississippi.  However, there are only two references to waterborne transportation and no discussion of the impact on the supply chain when waterborne routes are closed.

So which federal agency is responsible for tracking if the Mississippi River is open or closed?  The U.S. Coast Guard.[4]  This agency is responsible for improving  navigation. If a navigable waterway must be closed because of an accident, oil spill, or low water,  the U.S. Coast Guard will make the call.

Telling a barge operator that the Mississippi River is closed is not a popular job, but the Coast Guard has done it.  In 2012, the Coast Guard closed 11 miles of the river because, according to a Fox News report, low water levels prevented commercial vessel traffic from moving.[5] Over 100 vessels were stuck, fully laden. They could not move until the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the river.

Army Corps of Engineers

The Army Corps of Engineers owns and operates more than 600 dams.[6] They operate and maintain 12,000 miles of commercial inland navigation channels.  And lastly, they dredge more than 200 million cubic yards of material every year.

What issues does the 2012 Mississippi River closure raise?  Is the Army Corps of Engineers dredging the Mississippi River in a timely manner?  Are they quickly and efficiently fixing the locks referenced by Senator Stabenow in the 2017 Senate hearing?  The answer is clearly no!

The slow pace of river dredging and the antiquated locks have drawn the attention of Representative Garret Graves, the new Chair of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment.[7]  He’s holding a series of hearings to highlight the problem and develop solutions.[8]

At the first hearing , Chairman Graves questioned witnesses about the Army Corps of Engineers processes.  What could they do better?  He also asked about the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency responsible for reviewing the environmental aspects of dredging and lock repair. To both questions the answer was the same—decrease the permit time.

“… Ol’ man river…keeps rolling along…”

Tick Tock

So now we go back to the beginning.  In order to build skyscrapers and repair the country’s broken infrastructure, we need access to minerals.  But witnesses repeatedly told Senator Murkowski that the permitting process for new mines is time consuming and overly burdensome.

On the House side, witnesses told Representative Graves that it takes years to approve the necessary permits for dredging nation’s waterways.   So even if the country encourages the use of domestic mineral supplies for infrastructure projects, we won’t be able to move them along the Mississippi River or other waterways because they’re full of silt.

What is the solution?  Stick all of the involved agency representatives in a room and don’t let them out until all the dredging and lock repair paperwork is reviewed and approved or denied.  Fourteen years ago, I was part of a task force working on maritime security with Coast Guard, Maritime Administration, Transportation Security Administration, and Customs and Border Protection representatives.  For a solid year, we worked in a single room.  There were no coffee breaks.  There were no bathroom breaks.  We sat in the room for over eight hours a day because we were told that these regulations were a priority, and we got the job done.

And we got the job done without MOUs.   We didn’t spend months arguing over “shall” and “will” while the nation’s security was in the balance.

Now we face the critical question of protecting the nations’ infrastructure.  Don’t let this opportunity pass.   All federal employees regardless of their agency or department  are paid from the same pot of money and they have the same client— the American people.

It’s time to remind them that the client wants a fully functioning transportation system and that  “… Ol’ man river…keeps rolling along…”

Denise Rucker Krepp, Government Relations Counsel for EMR USA. Ms. Krepp is also a former U.S. Maritime Administration Chief Counsel and she served as Senior Counsel on the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee.


References

[1] U.S. Senate Committee on  Energy and Natural Resources, “Hearing to examine the United States’ increasing dependence on foreign sources of minerals and opportunities to rebuild and improve the supply chain of the United States,” March 28, 2017, https://www.energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/hearings-and-business-meetings?ID=71944BB9-2A99-4C4C-94F8-709B9D194592.

[2] “Mississippi River Facts”, accessed March 30, 2017, https://www.nps.gov/miss/riverfacts.htm.

[3] Mineral and Commodity Summary 2017, U.S. Geological Survey, accessed March 30, 2017, https://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/mcs/2017/mcs2017.pdf.

[4] Missions, U.S. Coast Guard, accessed March 30, 2017, http://www.overview.uscg.mil/Missions/marine_transportation/.

[5] Associated Press, “11-mile stretch of Mississippi River closed,” Fox News U.S., August 20, 2012, http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012/08/20/11-mile-stretch-mississippi-river-closed.html.

[6] Mission Overview, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, accessed March 30, 2017, http://www.usace.army.mil/Missions/.

[7] David Jacobs, “Making the Missippi River Deeper remains unknown – and unfunded – variable in local impact from Panama Canal expansion”, Greater Baton Rouge Business Report, June 8, 2016, https://www.businessreport.com/business/making-mississippi-river-deeper-remains-unknown-unfunded-variable-local-impact-panama-canal-expansion.

[8] House of Representatives Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment, Hearing, “Building a 21st Century Infrastructure for America: Revitalizing American Communities through the Brownfields Program”, March 9, 2017, http://transportation.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=401181.

Write to the Editors at ciprpt@gmu.edu