Supporters of the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP) have powers of faith, hope and patience even greater than Chicago Cubs fans. Year after year, they remind members of Congress and the general public of the many benefits of NESP, which works with other appropriations for the Upper Mississippi River system to form a more integrated, systems approach to both navigation improvements and ecological and habitat restoration.
NESP has been getting more attention than usual recently. The brand-new assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, Michael Connor, visited Mel Price Locks and Dam and Lock and Dam 25, a major focus of NESP supporters and the recipient of a recent offer from ag interests of $1 million for a study. (The Corps must get approval to accept it.) Because it still has only a 600-foot-long chamber, Lock and Dam 25 is the biggest choke point for waterborne traffic on the Upper Mississippi river system.
So far, NESP has been kept on life support with a trickle of studies and reports. It received funding in the FY18 ($1M) and FY20 ($4.5M) Corps Work Plans. Funding in FY18 was used for an economic update. The economic update was specifically focused on the navigation features of NESP and was completed in December 2019. Execution of the FY21 funds is underway and is focused on advancing pre-construction engineering and design efforts for both the navigation and ecosystem projects. NESP has never had construction funds appropriated, though.
The Corps is currently working up a spending plan, due January 14, that will include how it uses money it received under the recently passed infrastructure bill. There have been a lot of positive signs recently that the administration is giving more than the usual amount of attention to inland waterways issues. One such sign is the number of container-on-barge projects on the inland waterways that were given grants in the latest round of $12.6 million worth of grants to America’s Marine Highways (see story in this issue).
Connor also took part virtually in the inland waterways Industry Day, where he heard a lot from supporters of NESP, including ag interests. A flurry of letters from ag interests and their supporters in Congress have also made clear their support for NESP, including a bipartisan letter signed by more than 52 members of Congress from the House and Senate. It’s similar to a letter 50 bipartisan members of Congress sent about a year ago.
With all the momentum resulting from the recent passage of the administration’s infrastructure bill and a year’s worth of public attention focused on infrastructure and supply chain issues, we can’t see a better time for the Congress and the Corps to finally fund a construction start for NESP.