WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

NESP’s Long, Winding Wake 

Publications and politicians all over the country are touting the funds their regions have received from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). For this editorial, let’s focus on a major win for the Upper Mississippi. It’s worth taking a look back at the long, winding path of the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP), which has been a priority of Waterways Council Inc., the former Midwest Area Rivers Coalition (MARC 2000), and other waterways groups. The first studies that gave birth to what would become NESP began in 1989 and 1990. That’s before some current members of Congress were born. The first “scoping meetings” were held in 1990. 

According to the Corps of Engineers’ website on the history of NESP, “The studies began in November 1989 and April 1990, respectively, focusing on determining where the major constraints of the waterways were and making a preliminary determination of benefits and costs derived from structural or non-structural improvements to the waterways.” The two so-called reconnaissance studies were combined into a single feasibility study. Other studies followed, each extending the areas of interest and moving further toward a basin-wide view and vision. 

The goals of NESP are easily stated: “The primary opportunities [of NESP] were to reduce or eliminate commercial traffic delays and improve the national and regional economic conditions while restoring, protecting and enhancing the environment,” according to the Corps’ website. Many people have spent entire careers advocating for NESP and trying to move it forward. Its advocates managed to build support from constituencies on both side of the political aisle: farmers, union workers, factory owners, retailers, manufacturers and anyone whose supply chain or job depended on or benefitted from cheap, reliable water transportation. From the beginning, it was a truly bipartisan cause. 

Yet NESP had  opponents as well. Even getting the program authorized, much less funded, attracted opposition. According to those involved, opposition to NESP has often come from the Office of Management and Budget, a White House office that reviews bills in Congress to see if they are in line with the president’s agenda. The opposition came under presidents of both parties. 

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In 2007, Congress had to override a veto by President George W. Bush to preserve the first Water Resources Development Act in seven years that included a substantial NESP authorization (but not funding) of $2.2 billion for navigation improvements and $1.72 billion for ecosystem restoration, with an additional $10 million per year for monitoring. The bill authorized seven new 1,200-foot lock chambers over a 15- to 20-year period, five on the Upper Mississippi River and two on the Illinois River.   

More struggles were to follow. As recently as a year ago, this publication was editorializing about disappointments in NESP funding in the omnibus bill package. Apart from frank opposition, what had to be overcome was apathy and lack of knowledge. After every election cycle, members of Congress and their staffs had to be educated again on why NESP was so important. In the end, it was the persistence of waterways advocates, their partners in farming and manufacturing and their allies in Congress that led to the funding breakthroughs in the IIJA. 

The latest waterways infrastructure funding for Lock & Dam 25 in the IIJA represents a breakthrough to new levels of support that are “historic,” to use a word many advocates are repeating. Also important is that funding for the ecosystem restoration projects at Lock 22 (the proposed fish barriers) comes out of the environmental budget line, a separate money pot, rather than the navigation line.

Waterways Council Inc. has called this funding a “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernize the nation’s inland waterways transportation system to provide energy security, increase global competitiveness and further improve our environmental footprint.” 

As the IIJA funds make their way down the spending chain, there will be plenty to look forward to as projects are accelerated and completed. But as our industry always does, it is also important to look back at the long and winding wake of the voyage that got us here.