Written by Brad Walker, Rivers Director August 29, 2013
I recently attended an Upper Mississippi River (UMR) Lock & Dam workshop hosted by the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) in Bettendorf, IA. More than 60 people attended; the vast majority represented the agricultural and barge industries, UMR state DOT agencies and other people tied to the Inland Waterways System (IWS). The primary goal for the workshop was to “develop a unified vision for the action plan” for improving the UMR Inland Waterways System (IWS) for the benefit of those who use and make a living from the system.
Sounds like a good idea, right? This is a group of generally like-minded people, all benefiting in one way or another from shipping commodities on the UMR and working on a plan to improve their situation. Or, more accurately stated: working to increase their personal or corporate benefits by expanding the taxpayer 90% subsidy for a mode of transportation that cannot demonstrate profitability on its own and is extremely damaging to the rivers.
Less than a handful of participants in attendance would be considered outside interests who represented entities with no direct benefit from the IWS system. These ‘outsiders’ represented the environment and the taxpayers who do not benefit from the IWS, even though they send a portion of their federal taxes each year to fund the IWS.
The gathering gave me a glimpse of what it might have been like a century ago when special interests began meeting in smoky rooms plotting their original assaults on the rivers to tame them for commerce. The main differences today are that the stakeholders are no longer limited to old, wealthy, white men and (thankfully) cigars, suspenders and spittoons are no longer fashionable.
But the rhetoric is probably pretty similar. “Agriculture exports are essential to our economy, shipping by river is the best option, and therefore we need the federal government to step up and send us (endless streams of) money.”
The problem is none of these arguments are true. And the federal purse is limited.We ship millions of bushels of corn and soybeans overseas to be used exactly as we use them here, to feed livestock and cars. Little of either crop directly enters a human mouth; and growing immense volumes of these commodities is actually inhibiting us from improving hunger. Not a single one of the UMR states actually grows enough human food for their residents so we are increasingly reliant upon real food from vulnerable areas like the California Central Valley (essentially a desert) and foreign countries. Food insecurity within the five UMR states ranges from a bit over 10% to 16% of their populations with at least 30 million nationwide. Using most of our best farmland to grow and export livestock feed and an inefficient car fuel is not a real smart thing to do as far as national security is concerned.
The IWS has devastated the natural ecosystem services within and near our rivers; billions of dollars are needed to restore them. Expansion of the IWS would do nothing to improve the health of our rivers, but would certainly expose them to more damage. And one should be skeptical of those who say barges are more fuel efficient and therefore less polluting than railroads. It’s not true. Their comparisons are conveniently wrong and their simplified calculations inaccurate. The trains that haul corn and soybeans are considerably more efficient than barges.
And unlike the freight rail system, who pay all of their own maintenance and construction costs of up to $20 billion each year, the barge industry relies on the U.S. taxpayers for over 90% of the costs of the IWS –industry provides just a measly $80 million each year to the system they completely depend on.
As expected, pointing these realities out to people who are so connected to systems that provide them immense financial benefits falls upon closed ears. The meeting concluded with considerable circular reinforcement of their beliefs and zero objective evaluation. They fully anticipate hundreds of millions of additional tax dollars flowing from Congress allowing them to continue the exploitation of our diminishing resources at the expense of others through the scam they call “feeding the world”.
As long as the economic benefits go to the favored small group of corporations and farmers, the costs of the negative impacts are covered by everyone else, and no one complains, this unsustainable system will continue unabated.