Strengthening Water Infrastructure

The Washington Times

Nov 20 2019

Our country’s infrastructure systems are in critical need of updating. Fortunately, infrastructure is one of the few things that truly has bipartisan support in Washington.

My colleagues and I have stressed to the administration that it’s time to broaden the scope of traditional infrastructure investment. The response has been positive. We agree that Washington can no longer only fund the traditional three “Rs” of infrastructure: roads, rails and runways. Infrastructure plans for the 21st century must incorporate broadband internet access, modernization of our electric grid and improvements to water infrastructure systems.

An American Society of Civil Engineers study estimates $271 billion in wastewater infrastructure funding is needed over the next 20 years to meet current and future demand. The analysis indicates an additional $1 trillion will be needed over the next 25 years to maintain and expand drinking water services.  

Fortunately, we’ve already begun taking steps to recognize and address the need to upgrade water infrastructure, particularly for small and rural communities. Last Congress, I led an initiative to modernize water infrastructure investment by making it easier and more affordable for states to meet underserved or unmet water infrastructure needs. This initiative will benefit communities throughout the country that are often unable to afford upgrades to their wastewater and drinking water systems. Helping finance repairs or replacements to these vital pieces of infrastructure will be a much-needed relief for many towns and cities in my state of Arkansas and across the country. My proposal was incorporated into a comprehensive water infrastructure bill that was signed into law by President Trump in 2018. 

We’re also continuing efforts to update our aging water infrastructure by enhancing inland waterways. This critical component of our nation’s transportation system is integral to job creation, economic development, transportation, recreation and farming. 

The agriculture industry relies on a diverse network of intermodal transportation, which is why investments in our intermodal infrastructure are needed now to remain competitive globally. Many hard-working Arkansans rely heavily on our surface transportation system to ship their crops across the country or export them all over the world. It is imperative that our policies reflect the importance of intermodal transportation. Goods rarely get from point A to point B using just one form of transportation. The trucking industry regularly collaborates with rail to haul freight, making it one of rail’s top customers. 

One waterway system particularly important to transportation in the Natural State is the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS). This major waterway extends from the Tulsa, Oklahoma area flowing through Arkansas to the Mississippi River. It’s an economic asset that provides reliable transportation for goods in a 12-state region. A recent economic analysis of the MKARNS found that it generates a total of $10.45 billion in sales, $350 million in taxes and contributes more than 63,618 jobs to the national economy. 

For too long the MKARNS has been operating under a critical backlog of much needed modernizations. This has prevented routine maintenance and deepening of the waterway so that barges and boats can carry larger loads. Deepening the channel would provide a 40 percent increase in capacity for river barges to transport products for farmers and factories and reduce the price of goods for consumers across the country. 

Our public policy needs to support this economic engine. That’s why Sen. Jim Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and a longtime advocate for the MKARNS, and I teamed up to offer funding solutions for this critical waterway. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) included our commonsense measures in the America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act (ATIA), which was unanimously approved by the EPW Committee in July. Our provisions would allow Arkansas and Oklahoma to apply for federal discretionary grant funding as well as allow states to use their federal freight formula funding on waterway projects. Our provisions will provide the MKARNS with a number of new funding outlets that were not previously available.

We are working on a number of fronts to strengthen our nation’s water infrastructure. One of the top priorities of the EPW Committee in the 116th Congress is passing comprehensive legislation that improves our water resources policy to expand opportunity, promote commerce and reduce flood risks in projects overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  

The Water Resources Development Act is traditionally reauthorized biennially. In the last three Congresses, we were able to accomplish this in a bipartisan manner. I am hopeful that we can continue that cooperation as we write the 2020 bill.   

Ensuring we invest in water infrastructure will save money in the long term and help create growth and development in communities throughout the country.  

This was printed in the November 20, 2019 edition of the Washington Times.