MISSISSIPPI RIVER — Higher-capacity ports, expanded locks and dams and other infrastructure improvements are needed in the Mississippi River Watershed to allow its waterways to handle shipping demands caused by higher agriculture, oil and natural gas production and manage climate change effects, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official said yesterday.
Brig. Gen. Peter A. DeLuca, commander of the corps’ Mississippi Valley Division, spoke yesterday at a public meeting held on a corps vessel on the Mississippi River in Memphis. He called on federal, state and local governments — plus citizens groups, businesses and private entrepreneurs — to invest in updating existing infrastructure, and starting new projects.
In June, President Barack Obama signed a $12.3 billion water projects bill that finances 34 new projects over the next 10 years. Its price tag is half the amount of the last water projects bill seven years ago. Some conservative groups argued the bill contained unnecessary spending, but it had broad support from state and local officials and business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. All of the projects were recommended by the corps.
Still, DeLuca said more investment is needed. He said the United States ranks about 143rd in the world in infrastructure investment, a statistic also cited by other sources. Meanwhile, over the past 20 years, total federal, state, and local investment in transportation has fallen as a share of gross domestic product, while population, congestion, and maintenance backlogs have increased, according to an analysis of transportation infrastructure investment released in July by the White House.
The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gave inland waterways a D-minus.
“My eyes are bleeding looking at the growth that we are forgoing right now because we are not yet investing at a level that will pay us back,” DeLuca said at the meeting, which was part of a low-water inspection trip that included a stop in Caruthersville, Missouri, on Monday.
In a slide-show presentation, DeLuca said farming and manufacturing, plus a national rise in natural gas and oil production, are creating a higher demand for freight shipping in the Mississippi Watershed.
The watershed branches out from the Mississippi River and covers 41 percent of the country, including 31 states and 250 tributaries. Billions of dollars in cargo are shipped on barges on U.S. inland waterways each year.
Farming production has grown in the Mississippi Valley, partly due to precision land leveling and irrigation, he said.
Manufacturing has also increased in the valley, due to more investment by the steel, chemical and hydrocarbon-production industries. During a visit to the Arkansas River, DeLuca heard about ports being at capacity and looking to expand.
DeLuca said the infrastructure that makes shipping and water resource management possible, such as the system of dams and locks, needs more investment. He said about 85 sites along the nation’s inland waterways, including 51 sites on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, would benefit from expansion, lengthening and widening projects.
While trucks and trains can ship products, it’s cheaper to improve infrastructure on waterways rather than adding or expanding roads, highways and rail systems, DeLuca said.
DeLuca also discussed what he termed as effects of climate change. Those include an increase in storm intensities and a rise in annual precipitation in the watershed. The amount of water flowing into the watershed has risen, leading to changes in water management plans to avoid costly events such as the 2011 flood.
“The watershed is behaving differently now,” DeLuca said. “The volumes of water are different, the speed at which they come is different.”