Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this important hearing today. As you know, I have long been supportive of passing WRDA legislation, and it is my hope that this Congress will finally act on this. I am also pleased that we are holding this hearing today to discuss the Fiscal Year 2008 budget for the Army Corps of Engineers. This is an issue of great concern for me.
It has been six years since Congress last passed a Water Resources and Development reauthorization bill. The time has come to finally pass this important legislation.
America’s infrastructure and waterways system is the foundation of our economy. For too long, we have been ignoring our infrastructure, but Katrina was a wake-up call for all of us. In the wake of this disaster, we saw firsthand the devastating impact of a weak infrastructure on our people and our economy. The more we continue to fail to fund our water infrastructure, the more we are putting our nation’s competitiveness at risk in this global marketplace.
Our physical infrastructure is a critical piece to making America more competitive. Our infrastructure needs are overwhelming and being squeezed. We should be rebuilding an infrastructure of competitiveness so that future generations have at least the same opportunity to enjoy our standard of living and quality of life. If we continue to ignore the upkeep – the deterioration of our locks and dams, flood control projects, and navigation channels – we risk disruptions in waterborne commerce, decreased protection against floods as we saw in Katrina, and other environmental damage.
Right now, our infrastructure is collapsing due to insufficient funding. I am disappointed that the President’s budget includes an 8.6 percent decease for the overall Army Corps budget—a larger reduction for Construction budget, 31.8 percent decrease. Congress desperately needs to provide increased funding for the Army Corps of Engineers, especially with the large backlog of unfunded Corps projects. When I arrived in the Senate in 1999, the backlog of unfunded Corps Operation and Maintenance projects was $250 million. Today, it is $1.2 billion.
Despite these overwhelming needs, the Corps is currently able to function only at 50 percent capacity at the rate of funding proposed by the budget. Can you believe this after the lesson we learned from Hurricane Katrina? At the current low levels of construction appropriations, it would take 25 years to complete the active projects in the backlog without even considering additional project authorizations that will be included in this WRDA, let alone future authorizing legislation.
We have been asking the Corps of Engineers to do more with less. I am all for trimming fat from the federal budget and practicing fiscal discipline, but the Corps of Engineers budget is not fat – it’s the bread and butter of our economy and infrastructure.
I believe that we need a comprehensive prioritization system to ensure that Congress has the information it needs to direct limited federal resources to the most urgent projects. As we begin another debate on WRDA, it is my hope that we can include prioritization language in the bill. Without this language, we simply will continue to ignore our most critical infrastructure needs.
There is some good news in the FY2008 Army Corps of Engineers budget. I am pleased that the administration’s FY2008 budget requests $8 million in funding for the Asian Carp Barriers and also includes proposed authorization language for the Corps. However, I am disappointed that this language does not make the project the full responsibility of the federal government. During WRDA negotiations last year, we crafted language that would have made this a full federal project, and it is my hope that as this Committee considers WRDA, we will again make it a full federal project. It is critical that these barriers be completed and operational in a timely manner in order to protect the Great Lakes from the spread of invasive species.
Another Corps issue I am concerned about is dredging in Great Lakes. Throughout the Great Lakes, there is a significant dredging backlog, and I believe that this backlog is in part, the result of Corps policies that unfairly address the Great Lakes. The Corps estimates that the backlog of Great Lakes dredging totals about 16 million cubic yards of sediment at commercial harbors, and addressing this backlog would cost about $192 million. Unfortunately, the inability to provide sufficient dredging resources to the Great Lakes has very serious impacts on business.
Last year, a U.S. Maritime Administration surveyed the lake carriers, ships that operate exclusively in the Great Lakes, and estimated that 75% of the cargoes they have carried in the past five years have been reduced in volume due to inadequate water depth at either loading or discharge ports or in the connecting channels. The Midwest Environmental Resource Company reported that its 1,000 foot vessels are losing as much as 18 inches of loaded draft depending on the route. When these vessels forfeit 18 inches of draft, they are leaving approximately 4,500 tons of coal at the dock which is as much as 6.5 percent of their carrying capacity on each trip.
While I understand that we are underfunding the nation’s navigation infrastructure needs, the problem for the Great Lakes is also a result of the Corps’ budget practices which rely on performance metrics that treat the Great Lakes like a river system which results in funding inequities. For example, the Corps spent about $0.52 per ton of cargo carried in the Great Lakes, but the Missouri River received about $15 per ton of cargo carried.
I have spoken with General Berwick in the Cincinnati Great Lakes and Ohio River Division Office about this situation, and while I appreciate that the division is developing a 5 year plan to address the backlog of projects in the Great Lakes, I would like Headquarters officials to understand that there is a problem and make a commitment to working to find performance metrics or some other process to better determine the funding needs of the Great Lakes.
The passage of another WRDA bill cannot be delayed any further. It is simply too important to our nation in terms of its benefits to our economy and environment and for the speedy recovery for the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina.