WJ Editorial

How Could This Happen?

On August 12, members of the River Industry Executive Task Force (RIETF) received some unwelcome news from an official with the Rock Island Engineer District at a roundtable in Chicago. The news was dire: the Rock Island District will run out of money to support ongoing dredging operations by August 17—only five days away. If the money wasn’t forthcoming by then, the dredge Goetz would have to be pulled.

According to industry sources, there are at least 23 reaches within the jurisdiction of the Rock Island Engineer District that urgently need further dredging.   

According to a July 9 letter sent by RIETF to select members of Congress, “Today we have and continue to face an unprecedented challenge. The nation’s transportation system has been gravely harmed with closings and severe restrictions throughout the system since late in 2018. After 85 days of closure on the Upper Mississippi and lengthy closures on most major rivers, traffic is finally moving. Despite the re-opening, traffic is still moving with restricted tows and random closings.  Some places on the Arkansas River and in other locations continue to be impassable, hampering the nation’s economic engine.”

After the Rock Island news, RIETF and other industry leaders urged all inland stakeholders to contact their representatives in Congress.

Let’s be clear, though, that the problem is not Congress’ failure to act. With the passage of the Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act of 2019, signed by President Trump June 6, Congress has already made an additional $100 million available for emergency dredging.

The Rock Island District only needs $5.5 million to keep the dredging going until October 1. But the money has apparently not been distributed from Corps headquarters in Washington to the districts where it is needed.

The towing industry committees have been diligent in letters to the Corps, making clear the need is urgent and immediate.

Another urgent letter sent by RIETF August 13 to Congress, Assistant Secretary of the Army-Civil Works R.D. James and Maj. Gen. Mark Toy, newly installed commanding general of the Mississippi Valley Division, said, “The industry members of RIETF urge Congress to direct the Corps to allocate the funds to avert additional disruptions to the nation’s inland waterway transportation system. Without this immediate action, over 20 reaches of the Mississippi River in the Rock Island District alone are in danger of closure by the end of the week.

“RIETF also expects similar dredging issues to impact the St. Paul District, the St. Louis District, the Lower Mississippi, and other waterways in the near future if emergency funding is not distributed to the appropriate districts.  If this vital segment of the Upper Mississippi River is not maintained to its fully authorized width and depth, the nation’s heartland will face severe economic consequences.”

Ever since the unprecedented high water began back in December, everyone connected with the river industry has known that this year’s dredging needs were going to be equally unprecedented. Virtually every navigable river in the system has been affected: the Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Ohio and their tributaries all received record-breaking amounts of rainfall.

This is an emergency. There should have been enough time for the Corps to develop an action plan and to make sure that allocated emergency dredging money is immediately distributed as and where needed.

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