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Public Statements

Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. DURBIN. Mr. President, I rise today to discuss two bills I am introducing--one to maintain navigation on the Mississippi River during extreme weather and the second, to improve the Nation's water infrastructure, including locks and dams on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.

For many of us, last year's low water event on the Mississippi River is still fresh in our minds. We came close to economic catastrophe when ongoing drought conditions in the Midwest led to the lowest water levels seen on the Mississippi River since World War II and threatened to disrupt the movement of billions of dollars in goods on the river. At the height of the crisis at the end of 2012, Waterways Council and the American Waterways Operators estimated that up to $7 billion in goods could be effected by a river closure from December to January.

The worst conditions for navigation were near Thebes, IL, in a stretch of river referred to as the Middle Mississippi. It begins at the confluence of the Missouri River and ends at Cairo, IL where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers merge. The natural bends and twists of the river here combined with naturally occurring rock formations on the river bed make this stretch particularly difficult to navigate during periods of extreme low water. To pass, barges were forced to carry lighter loads than normal, reducing efficiency and costing them money.

Only through better than expected rainfall, Congress pushing the Army Corps to expedite removal of rock pinnacles at Thebes, and some creative reservoir management was the river able to stay open and the worst case scenarios able to be avoided this time. For the Corps' part, it was an amazing fete and they should be commended for their successful efforts.

But we know from Hurricane Katrina to Sandy, from severe flooding on the Mississippi River in 2011 to the historic low water in 2012, extreme weather seems to be the new normal--becoming more frequent and more severe.

The Mississippi River Navigation Sustainment Act seeks to make government and commercial navigation users better prepared for the next extreme weather event that threatens navigation. I am pleased that Representatives BILL ENYART and RODNEY DAVIS are introducing companion legislation in the House.

The bill authorizes the Corps to conduct a study to better coordinate management of the entire Mississippi River Basin during periods of extreme weather. This will ensure that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers takes into account the effect the entire basin has on navigation and flood control efforts on the Mississippi River.

The Mississippi River Basin is the third largest watershed in the world and covers more than 40 percent of the contiguous United States. It doesn't take a PhD in hydrology to know that what happens on other systems in the watershed affects the Mississippi River and activities on it.

This bill will also improve river forecasting capabilities through the increased use of tools like sedimentation ranges and the deployment of additional automated river gages on he Mississippi and its tributaries. During the latest low water event, many of the manual gages--sometimes literally lines painted on bridges--became unusable because the water was so low. lmproving the ability to accurately forecast and provide information on current river conditions will help barge operators and shippers who have to make long term business decisions based on this information. Operators leaving Minnesota need to know that when they get to Thebes, river conditions will allow them to pass.

The bill will also provide flexibility to the Army Corps to conduct certain operations outside of the authorized channel if such action is deemed necessary to maintaining commercial navigation. This authority would be used to maintain access to loading docks and other critical infrastructure during periods of low water. In addition, it will allow the Corps to better assist the Coast Guard in managing traffic on the river during low water events by providing areas for barge operators to moor their vessels farther away from the navigation channel, leading to increased safety and greater ability to keep the navigation channel clear.

Finally, recognizing that the Mississippi River is a vital natural resource, this bill will create an environmental pilot program in the Middle Mississippi River. This will give the Army Corps the authority to restore and protect fish and wildlife habitat in this portion of the river while conducting activities to maintain navigation.

Also key to maintaining navigation and commerce on the Mississippi and other inland waterways, is continued investment in water infrastructure.

For example, the locks and dams on the upper Mississippi River and Illinois Rivers, built in the 30's and 40's, are aging, making the risk of failure an ever increasing prospect. In addition, the lock chambers are too small to accommodate today's standard barge configuration helping lead to an average delay of more than 4 hours for passing vessels.

That is why I worked with my colleagues in Missouri and Iowa in the 2007 Water Resources and Development Act to authorize the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program which would expand and modernize these locks while restoring the ecosystem on the Upper Mississippi.

Modernizing these locks means safer, more reliable, and drastically more efficient navigation. Operators and shippers alike would benefit--barge companies could maximize efficiency while Illinois farmers and others could reliably get their products to market.

Unfortunately, under current project delivery processes and Federal fiscal realities, the first benefits of this modernization are not expected to be felt by the navigation industry before 2047. And that was before sequestration. Between sequestration and the continuing resolution being debates on the Senate floor now, the Corps' construction budget for fiscal year 13 would be cut by approximately $80 million. Even before all of that, the Corps estimated a project backlog of approximately $60 billion.

It is clear we need a new model--one that speeds up the process of planning and constructing these projects in the face of an often slow bureaucratic process and brings to the table greater private investment while the Federal Government is cutting back.

That is what Senator KIRK and I are proposing with the Water Infrastructure Now Public-Private Partnership Act. I am proud that Representatives BUSTOS and DAVIS have introduced companion legislation in the House.

The bill will create a pilot program to allow the Army Corps of Engineers to enter into agreements with non-federal partners using new and creative models to finance and construct up to 15 previously-authorized flood damage reduction, hurricane and storm damage reduction, and navigation projects.

I am hopeful that this program will provide a way to maintain our investments in important water infrastructure projects even as we face severe fiscal restraints by creating a greater opportunity for private interests to come to the table.

At the same time, the bill would take care to protect previous taxpayer investments by prohibiting any privatization of Federal assets and requiring a study to show that any proposed agreement would actually provide a public benefit.

For many of these long-stalled, large scale infrastructure projects, like the Locks and Dams on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, this common sense bill could provide a way forward.

Together, the Mississippi River Navigation Sustainment Act and the Water Infrastructure Now Public-Private Partnership Act, represent positive steps forward in the effort to maintain the economic viability of the Mississippi River and protect our inland waterway system against threats from extreme weather and aging infrastructure. I hope my colleagues will join me in cosponsoring these common sense measures.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bills be printed in the Record.


Mr. DURBIN. Mr. President, among Chicago's most treasured assets is Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes are among this country's most valuable natural resources, but the lakes face many natural and man-made threats. I'm pleased to join my Illinois colleague, Senator Mark Kirk, in introducing today the Great Lakes Water Protection Act to address one of those threats--municipal sewage.

A recent report found that from January 2010 through January 2011, 7 U.S. cities dumped a combined 18.7 billion gallons of waste water into the Great Lakes. Sewage and storm water discharges have been associated with elevated levels of bacterial pollutants. For the 40 million people who depend on the Great Lakes for their drinking water, that is no small matter.

When bacterial counts go too high, beaches have to be closed. In Illinois, we have 52 public beaches along the Lake Michigan shoreline. People use these beaches for swimming, boating, fishing and many communities generate revenue from the public beaches. Every lost visitor to a public beach costs the local economy between $20 and $36 in revenue.

Our legislation would quadruple fines for municipalities that dump raw sewage in the Great Lakes and direct the revenue from these penalties to projects that improve water quality. The bill also includes new reporting requirements to provide a more complete understanding of the frequency and impact of sewage dumping on this critical water system.

The Great Lakes are a national treasure. Illinoisans know that. They want to protect Lake Michigan and they are willing to fight for the Lake. Three and a half years ago, when we learned that BP was planning to increase the pollutants it puts into Lake Michigan--the people of Illinois stood up and said no. Polluting our lake further is not an option.

Senator Kirk and I agree. Protecting the Great Lakes is not a partisan issue, and this is not a partisan bill. We will work together to ensure that this national treasure is around for generations, providing drinking water, recreation and commerce for Illinois and other Great Lakes States.


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