WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

Dredging Money Finally Flowing: What About Next Year?

Finally, much-needed supplemental federal money to restore river channels and repair damage from the flood of 2019, signed into law in June in the Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act of 2019, is flowing to Corps districts.

In this issue, the Little Rock Engineer District details the $119 million supplemental funds it asked for and will receive to stabilize navigation channels on the Arkansas River and repair damage caused by this spring’s unprecedented flooding, which hit the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System especially hard.

The news that the Port of Little Rock is on track to meet or slightly exceed the number of barges moved in 2018 is a welcome to the resiliency of the port and the navigation industry. But that resiliency should not mislead anyone into underestimating the flood’s effects of the necessity of preparing for future floods.

On the Upper Mississippi River, too, a supplemental $100 million is also finally being delivered—but only after unaccountable delays and the intervention of three members of Congress. In the meantime, the Rock Island Engineer District had to scrape together funds for dredging and borrow resources from other districts while it waited for the money. At one point it faced the prospect of sending away dredges in the middle of needed dredging work.

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Forecasters at the National Weather Service are already worrying about a repeat of the 2019 floods next spring. In September, a NWS hydrologist cited already-saturated soils in the northern Midwest, and a long-range forecast of a wetter-than normal winter.

This year, some federal agencies showed that they understand the need for more rapid coordination in the face of flood emergencies. In June, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency signed a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to streamline coordination in order to more quickly free up EPA-funded State Revolving Fund programs in flood emergencies to restore water services and other infrastructure.

River channels take much longer to restore than drinking water. We get that. The tremendous deposits of silt involved mean that even while short-term emergency dredging is being performed, as on the Tenn-Tom system this spring, the channels have to be resurveyed. That can be a lengthy process, with Coast Guard and Corps resources stretched. On the Arkansas River, the Corps relies on industry reports of shoaled areas.

But it’s not too much to ask that the Corps receive allocated funds promptly. If floods like those of 2019 are going to be regularly recurring events, as some climate and weather experts tell us, all federal agencies will have to become expert flood-responders, including those responsible for moving allocated and voted funds. We can only hope that the next time supplemental funds are voted, they can get where they are supposed to and get to work more quickly.