River Roils: Political Pandering, Perennial Whack-a-mole, Collateral Damage, and Payouts
Written by Brad Walker, Rivers Director July 18, 2013
Special interest politics and the abuse of power by politicians surprise no one. However, in the interest of a diligent citizenry, we have three recent examples for your entertainment that put facts and faces to this kind of behavior; all of which are affecting the nation’s dying rivers and our nation’s bank accounts.
(1) The Missouri River is arguably the most messed up river in the country. Solely for the benefit a small group of beneficiaries – barge owners and agribusinesses along the river – we have spent 100 years and about $10 billion shortening, straight-jacketing and abusing the river to the point it does not function or even look like a natural river any more.
Three endangered species, the proverbial canaries, are used as proxies by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to advise us how severely we have destroyed the river habitats that these animals require to survive. As proxies they also inform us that we have lost billions of dollars annually in free benefits that a healthy Missouri River used to provide. Free and valuable benefits like flood storage, water aquifer recharging, pollution filtration, hunting and fishing, and recreation.
Since 1981 our government has had a plan to restore thousands of acres of river habitat and Congress has agreed to fund the restoration of about 167,000 acres of the estimated 400,000 terrestrial acres lost. Thus far about 67,000 acres have been restored and are providing benefits. When completed, the annual value of the public benefits will be about a billion dollars.
We have been advised that Missouri Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer has plans to undermine the Missouri River restoration efforts. In fact, attacking these restoration efforts appears to be one of his favorite past-times. There is nary a mention of the value of our environment on his website, and he includes plenty of mention of how to exploit natural resources. His latest scheme would stealthily change the plan that the river restoration project has followed since its inception to an alternate plan that most state and federal agencies and all river region governors found unacceptable. Never mind that the current plan would provide immense benefits to all of his constituents. He is clearly interested in pandering to that small group of river exploiters who are celebrating their centennial observance of hoping that fabled barge traffic will miraculously appear on the Missouri River.
(2) In the Bootheel another Missouri story centers on a notorious and seemingly eternal scheme called the St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway project which has made national news over the last year or so. This project rears its head every once in a while, much like that carnival Whack-a-mole game. This time, it emerges with the U.S. Corps of Engineers producing yet another Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
The Corps is currently working on its seventh EIS for the agencies responsible for protecting our environment. The last time this project popped up the Federal Court whacked it down because the Corps had manufactured some imitation facts to justify the project.
The New Madrid Floodway portion of the project is estimated to destroy or degrade about 50,000 acres of wetlands while serving only to increase the crop yields of a small group of farmers who farm in the Floodway; essentially it’s an economic development project for already wealthy farmers.
The New Madrid Floodway, where they farm, is a legally designated floodway which was last used in 2011 to alleviate Ohio and Mississippi River flooding. In May 2011 the courts had to make a ruling to allow the Corps to use the Floodway after the State of Missouri sued to stop its use; the delay nearly flooded towns in Illinois and Kentucky. One of the larger landowners within the Floodway who would directly benefit from the project is also a longstanding member of the Mississippi River Commission, an organization that has significant influence on Mississippi River-related decisions including this project. One is left to wonder just how much influence is needed to resurrect a boondoggle project six times.
MCE favors the St. Johns Bayou portion of the project and hope it would be split out and pursued separately.
Missouri Senator Blunt has assumed the role of retired Senator Kit Bond in supporting the awful New Madrid floodway project. He has been blocking the appointment of Gina McCarthy as EPA Director EPA Director for about 4 months, a reported record length for a block of this type, because he thinks EPA is delaying the review of the seventh EIS for the project. They are not. The first action has nothing to do with the second, but logic and causation are incidental victims in politics. Both of the reviewing agencies, US Fish and Wildlife Service and EPA, have had large budget cuts prior to and including the 2013 sequester, which have likely impacted their ability to expeditiously respond to the Corps. This is especially true for EPA. We wonder at what point it becomes extremely frustrating for an agency to have to once again play Whack-a-mole when there are important issues that need to be addressed and fewer resources to address them. Ironically or perhaps purposefully, Senator Bond contributes to EPA’s inability to perform by placing an unnecessary hold on the appointment of its leader while simultaneously pandering to elite constituents in the Bootheel – a win-win for him.
UPDATE: the EIS is out now. See here.
(3) The U.S. has a dysfunctional and arduous method of authorizing projects that affect our rivers called the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). WRDA authorizes studies and projects within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps) primary mission areas: 1) commercial navigation; 2) flood risk management; and 3) aquatic ecosystem restoration. The projects that are authorized, historically through an earmarking process, include locks, dams, levees, beach sand replenishment, river island building and channel dredging. WRDA can also affect, through the Corps permitting process, public and private structures and infrastructure near, over, or under rivers.
Mission areas 1) and 2) get most of the funding and within the Mississippi River basin revolve primarily around the navigation mission with the hope that navigation projects will also reduce flooding problems. Mission 3) is and always has been an afterthought because nature is considered by far too many people who make these decisions as a luxury and unimportant. Unfortunately for all of the rest of us who suffer from the bad decisions they make, restoration of natural areas and ecosystem services and functions they provide us are essential and provide huge free value to the public.
There is a new WRDA moving through Congress this summer. The Senate has already rammed through a bill and the House has only just begun to draft their version of the bill. The Senate bill has many problems including one major one that specifically undermines our fundamental environmental laws. However, it is another change in the bill related to the funding of the inland waterways (rivers) navigation system that concerns us here.
Since 1986, half of the funds required to construct new or rehabilitate existing navigation infrastructure has come through the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF) that collects a $.20/gallon diesel fuel tax from barges. The $.20 rate has not increased for about 18 years and is severely inadequate to properly generate adequate revenue to perform its intended task of funding infrastructure. A single large new locks and dam project on the Ohio River, Olmsted Locks and Dam, has been taking most of the entire IWTF revenue since its inception and would likely require most of the funding for about another decade.
The Senate bill did not increase diesel fuel tax up to $.50 where it would have been if it had been adjusted to keep pace with inflation and the growing wish list of the barge industry. Instead, the Senate shifted the IWTF obligations for the Ohio River project for the remaining costs, nearly $800 million, directly to the taxpayers, and with language changes so subtle that only a water resources policy wonk in D.C would realize its impact.
By the way, the inland waterways navigation system is already by far the most heavily taxpayer subsidized form of commercial navigation in the nation. It receives a more than 90% subsidy from taxpayers. It competes with freight rail which is not subsidized at all by the taxpayers. Unfortunately, we do not know which specific Senator wrote this language. We do know who will pay the bill.
We wish these stories were outliers but unfortunately they are too representative of how our government operates with relationship to our rivers. We are working in Missouri to shine a light on these issues to restore health to our rivers – and accountability to taxpayers.