NWC Meeting Includes Focus On Navigation Needs

Navigation needs, including how to use limited dollars to maintain channel dimensions and infrastructure, were some of the issues highlighted at the recently concluded National Waterways Conference annual meeting.

The meeting took place September 22-24 in Baltimore, Md.

A session titled “Highlighting Challenges, Opportunities and Best Practices in the Navigation World” was sponsored by NWC’s navigation caucus and included panelists Tiffany Burroughs, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chief of navigation; Richard Balzano, CEO and executive director of the Dredging Contractors of America; Tracy Zea, president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc.; and Andrew Sinclair, director of federal government affairs for the Port of Virginia.

Burroughs noted that the U.S. marine transportation industry supports roughly $2 trillion in commerce annually and that the country has 12,000 miles of commercial inland and intracoastal waterways, nearly as many as its 13,000 miles of coastal and deep-draft channels. Forty-five states are directly served by Corps-maintained channels and waterways.

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Challenges include constrained funding that prevents the Corps from maintaining authorized/constructed channel dimensions and infrastructure, competing priorities and aging infrastructure, she said, along with the increased cost of doing business, capacity for dredge material and environmental issues, including threatened, endangered and invasive species.

WRDA Changes

She also highlighted key changes in the 2020 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).

One high point is The Inland Waterways Trust Fund project cost share changed from 50/50 to 35 percent trust fund/65 percent general revenues split for projects receiving construction funds between 2021 and 2031 until their completion.

Additionally, she said, WRDA includes an inland pilot project to carry out modernization activities. Non-federal funds can be received for authorized projects, and non-federal interests can carry out activity.

WRDA also establishes several discretionary targets. Specifically, she said, it calls for at least 15 percent of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) dollars made available each fiscal year be allocated to emerging harbors, at least 13 percent to Great Lakes projects, at least 17 percent to commercial strategic ports and at least 12 percent be allocated for expanded uses, of which one-third be provided to energy transfer ports and two-thirds provided to donor ports.

The act establishes how much HMTF appropriations can be taken “off budget,” not to exceed revenues from two fiscal years prior plus $500 million, starting in fiscal year 2021 and escalating every year through 2030.

Burroughs also noted capital investment opportunities, including at the Illinois Waterway locks and dams of LaGrange, Peoria, T.J. O’Brien and Dresden Island; at the upper Ohio lock and dams of Montgomery, Emsworth and Dashields; JT Myers, Greenup and Marmet farther downstream on the Ohio; Upper Mississippi locks and dams 25, 24, 22, 21 and 20; the Three Rivers projects in Arkansas; and at Calcasieu Lock, Colorado River Locks, Brazos floodgates and the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Lock on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

Balzano said the priorities of the Dredging Contractors of America include facilitating the partnership between the dredging industry and the Corps, which he called “critically important.”

“Together we keep the waterways open, keep the national economy moving and protect national security,” he said as part of a Powerpoint presentation. “We help our ports and waterways grow and compete in today’s ever competitive global economy.”

Challenges include planning and coordinating with the Corps and stakeholders as additional funding becomes available in the HMTF, infrastructure bill and federal budget to determine how that funding will be spent on which project over what kind of period.

He noted that the industry is investing in some cases without a contract in hand, which is not normal for the maritime industry and that these are long-term, 30- to 50-year investments. There has been $2 billion invested since 2018 in the commercial fleet, Balzano said. That includes two large hopper dredges, three larger cutter suction dredges and a large dump scow already delivered and three large hopper dredges and two cutter suction dredges under construction. A contract is pending on three large hopper dredges, and another large hopper dredge is in the development phase.

Infrastructure Funding

Zea took a closer look at the infrastructure bill being debated by Congress, which includes $2.5 billion for construction on inland waterways. That amount, coupled with yearly appropriations, provides for more than $4 billion of funding in the next five years, he said.

Zea also looked at Capital Investment Project Strategy locations, including potential projects that could be funded. The highest tier projects he highlighted were Lock and Dam 25 and LaGrange Lock and Dam, both of which are Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP) projects on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway, along with Three Rivers on the MKARNS and Upper Ohio navigation, beginning with Montgomery Lock and Dam.

In a second tier, he highlighted potential funding for the NESP project at Lock and Dam 24 on the Upper Mississippi, the MKARNS 12-foot channel and Emsworth Lock and Dam on the Upper Ohio.

The conference opening session included Al Lee, director of Civil Works for the Corps of Engineers, who talked about policies and programs that are in the works and how the agency has adjusted to life as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The Corps has downsized its offices in the Government Accountability Office Building and is redesigning the offices, Lee said. Like many companies in the private sector, the agency is evaluating how it will operate in the future. He said it is likely a percentage of the workforce will come in certain days of the week physically into the office.

Regarding WRDA 2020 implementation guidance, he said 11 sections have been signed and 25 are to be released in the coming weeks.

Other sessions at the NWC annual meeting focused on:

• FEMA’s plan to roll out changes to the flood risk rating on October 1 that will change how the National Flood Insurance Program calculates flood insurance premiums beyond flood zones by incorporating variables such as the distance to water, size and types of nearest water bodies. 

• How federal climate and environmental justice policies impact water resource infrastructure.

• How upcoming floodplain regulations will impact water resource facilities and infrastructure.

• Why regional differences in water supply issues matter.

• The latest on “Waters of the U.S.” rulemaking.

• Water infrastructure cybersecurity needs.

• Remarks from acting Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) Jamie Pinkham.

• Regional challenges and opportunities in the Chesapeake Bay region and beyond.