Guest view: It's time to fix our locks and levees

May 18, 2013 

We have an infrastructure problem in this country.

In its 2013 Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America's infrastructure a near-failing grade: "D-plus."

Worse, our inland waterways, levees and ports were given a "D-minus" with an estimated $3.6 trillion needed to turn that around.

Consider the locks and dams on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. These two rivers are important economic arteries, transporting millions of tons of product each year.

The locks and dams, built almost 90 years ago, that allow barges to move these goods are aging and at a growing risk of failure.

More than seven years ago, I worked with my colleagues in Congress to authorize modernization of the locks and dams along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. But with an estimated $60 billion Army Corps backlog of projects, these upgrades aren't scheduled for completion until 2090 -- and that estimate was made before sequestration.

We can't wait decades to make the changes that are going to be needed. We need to complete these projects as soon as possible at the best cost possible.

The Water Resources Development Act, passed by the Senate last week for the first time since 2007, updates many of the payment mechanisms and processes we use to maintain and build America's levees, locks and dams and ports.

Because this bill comes at a time of budget caps and limited resources, we've included new, innovative proposals allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to leverage private money and expedite local projects.

Two months ago, Sen. Mark Kirk and I joined Reps. Cheri Bustos and Rodney Davis in introducing the bipartisan Water Infrastructure Now Public Private Partnership Act.

Our legislation creates a pilot program to explore alternatives to traditional financing, design, planning and construction models. This new program will encourage the government to partner with private companies to pay for and deliver big water infrastructure projects. By entering into public-private partnership agreements, the Army Corps of Engineers could expedite construction and begin to clear their project backlog.

Through negotiations with members of the Environment and Public Works Committee, we were able to secure this program as a provision in the Senate's version of the Water Resources Development Act.

Also part of the Senate-passed legislation is a proposal I authored and introduced with Reps. Bill Enyart and Davis to help the Army Corps of Engineers and the private sector better respond to low water situations and flooding along the Mississippi River.

This winter, we saw water levels so low on the Mississippi River that commerce nearly came to a halt. Thankfully, because of some unexpected rain and good work by the Corps of Engineers, we made it through, but we can't just sit back and hope that it never happens again.

Our proposal, as passed by the Senate, will improve forecasting capabilities and technology on the Mississippi River, give the Corps greater flexibility to operate outside of the navigation channel and create an environmental management pilot program for the Middle Mississippi. It also authorizes a study that would, for the first time, look at the entire Mississippi River Basin, which covers 40 percent of the United States and is the third largest river basin in the world.

The study will help us better understand how the basin functions as a system and how we can best manage it to maintain safe and reliable navigation and protect lives and property -- especially during times of extreme flooding and drought.

Finally, the Senate-passed Water Resources Development Act includes language I requested that will help assist the metro-east repair its levees. It will lower the financial burden on locals and allow for greater efficiency and flexibility in completing projects and to help ensure that they are completed on-time.

A completed Water Resources Development Act is essential to the commerce that moves on our inland waterways and to the communities that rely on flood protection during extreme weather events.

It's now time for the House of Representatives to act. We can't afford to wait.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL, is assistant Senate majority leader.

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