Transportation Report: Adequate funding for rivers critical to economy, ecology and recreation

I, for one, have been grateful to see a renewed focus on our infrastructure this year. While the so-called “stimulus” continues to be a letdown on this front, I do applaud the fact it has gotten people talking about our infrastructure needs. But as we work to improve our roads, rails and runways we must not forget the fourth “R,” our rivers. Our rivers provide amazing resources that can simultaneously provide transportation, recreation and conservation.

According to the American Waterway Operators, 15 percent of the cargo shipped across our nation is carried via our inland waterways. This includes every gallon of jet fuel pumped onto planes at O’Hare International Airport, 20 percent of the coal we burn and more than 60 percent of our grain exports. In doing so, each barge takes more than 200 rail cars off our tracks or more than 1,000 trucks off our roads. Shipping via barge not only eases congestion along our roads and rails, but it also lessens the pollutants in the air, emitting 39 percent less CO2 than locomotives and 371 percent less CO2 than trucks.

However, without an immediate investment in our waterways we will lose access to this economical and ecological advantage. The infrastructure that makes inland navigation possible is outdated and degraded. Most of the locks on our rivers were designed for Mark Twain’s steamboat, not today’s needs. In fact the locks in and around my district are approaching their 80th birthday and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Even at their best, these locks are poor substitutes for the needed infrastructure. And these locks are far from their best. Every year the locks lose 10 percent of their capacity to unplanned maintenance closures. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) is doing its best to keep these locks working, but sooner or later the patch will stop working and one of these dinosaurs will fail. Should such a failure happen, the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute estimates our national economy will take a $645 million and $806 million hit every year the locks remain out of service.

To right this wrong, a coalition ranging from the Audubon Society to the American Farm Bureau, from the Corn Growers to the Carpenters Union have banded together to lobby for new 1,200-foot locks that will not only alleviate the need for costly repairs of the existing facilities but also cut lockage times in half.

The Navigation and Ecosystem Restoration Project, or NESP, seeks to address these problems by constructing seven new locks on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. This Corps program also recognizes that these rivers are not only blue highways and authorizes $1.6 billion for repairs to these amazingly diverse ecosystems.

The Illinois and Mississippi rivers provide habitat for more than 25 percent of North America’s fish species and 60 percent of the North American bird species. These fish and fowl provide alluring targets for the millions of hunters and anglers who flock to the region. But in order to keep these fish and fishermen, ducks and duck hunters coming back to my district every year, we need to ensure that there is adequate habitat.

Other programs have shown that programs such as NESP can be successful. Just outside of my district is the largest restoration of a floodplain in the United States. The Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge currently contains more than 2,000 acres and is expected to grow to more than 11,000 acres. Since the effort to restore the land begun in 1993, the Corps, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and nongovernmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy have worked to create backwaters, marshes and lakes that are now teeming with wildlife and wildlife lovers.

On another part of the Illinois River, the Corps is conducting a variety of ecosystem restoration projects collectively labeled the Illinois River Basin Restoration. The efforts conducted under this program are part of a 20-year state/federal plan to restore and enhance the 300,000-square-mile river basin. As one small example of this program in action, the Corps is conducting a project across the river from my hometown of Peoria that will use the material dredged from the navigation channel to build islands in the river. These islands provide perfect nesting zones for birds and slow-moving water for fish habitat.

As we construct and reclaim habitat we must also ensure the quality of the waters in these habitats. We must work to lessen the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus being carried by our rivers. We must reward farmers for employing buffer strips between farm ground and water bodies and using other techniques that protect the quality of our water. Specifically, we must support programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program, (CRP) the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) and Environment Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). Additionally, we must ensure that communities have the resources they need to ensure their wastewater systems are not causing damage to our water bodies.

Through these actions we can create a river system that provides for our needs and the needs of our environment.

Schock is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.