The latest report on the importance of waterways released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture August 28, titled “Importance of Inland Waterways to U.S. Agriculture,” was welcomed by the Waterways Council Inc., as well as the National Grain and Feed Association and other farm groups.
The report—prepared by Informa Agribusiness Consulting for USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service—sketches out the estimated consequences of three waterways infrastructure funding scenarios: “status quo,” increased investment or reduced investment. It yields some important data points:
• Every dollar of waterways activity output [i.e., spending] results in additional economic activity directly related to the waterways of $1.86.
• The U.S. currently has a $5.35 per metric ton transportation cost advantage over Brazil when shipping soybeans on the inland waterways system (using a route from Davenport, Iowa, to Shanghai as an example), but that advantage could slip if infrastructure spending is not stepped up.
• The study calculates that $6.3 billion in extra infrastructure investment could yield 77,000 more jobs, a 4 percent drop in landed costs for corn and soybeans, and an estimated $72 billion in benefits.
The report was released during a tour of McAlpine and Mel Price locks and dams by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works R.D. James.
Waterways Council Inc. welcomed the report’s endorsement of the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP), which it has long championed and which has not received much attention in recent years. “We believe the study makes the case to expedite NESP, [which] would modernize five locks on the Upper Mississippi River and two on the Illinois Waterway to be ready to capitalize on predicted grain shipments, while at the same time improving the health of our marine ecosystems and habitats,” said WCI President and CEO Mike Toohey, who noted pointedly, “NESP is awaiting pre-construction engineering and design funds to be ‘shovel-ready’ for these vital locks.”
The report, under preparation for a year, provides firm support for sensible funding proposals long supported by farmers and the navigation industry.
It is surely not a coincidence that it is being released during an election season, at a time when President Trump is anxious to show support for farmers who have been devastated not only by this year’s floods but even more so by the tariff wars with China, which he amped up in August with fresh tariff escalation threats.
While Congress has stepped up for the Corps in recent funding bills, even in a “normal” election season it’s hard to predict what will and won’t get done. In this season, it’s impossible.
Any member of Congress who wants to work across party lines to support waterways infrastructure, however, could do no better than to consult this report.