What price infrastructure improvements for Inland Waterways?

U.S. farmers are in the middle of a second “Green Revolution,” harvesting more grain than anyone thought possible a few years ago. U.S. domestic oil production, meanwhile, rose 18 percent in 2013, and, in 2014, the U.S. became the No. 1 oil producer in the world.

Both developments are good news for the U.S. economy and for customers of U.S. food and energy. But each will also put immense pressure on the U.S. transportation system, according to Brig. Gen. Peter “Duke” DeLuca, who recently retired as commander of the Mississippi Valley Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Using a withering barrage of facts and figures, Gen. DeLuca outlined the current problems facing the U.S. Inland Waterways Transportation Network during a presentation to a group of congressional staff members who participated in an orientation visit conducted by Delta Council. Later, he sat down for an interview with Delta Farm Press.

“I think we have two major challenges with the United States infrastructure in general and certainly our water resources infrastructure, in particular,” he said. “The first one is that we are not maintaining that infrastructure at a rate to continue its functionality into the future. We are losing functionality, the system is degrading in ways that are going to be extremely harmful to safety and economic development in our country.”

DeLuca, who served 32 years, including three years in combat zones, during his time in the U.S. Army, says the U.S. is being harmed already due to the failure of the country to invest in the Inland Waterways Transportation System and other transportation infrastructure.

“We’re keeping it together as best we can with procedurals, with workarounds and by trying to stretch a dollar, prioritizing the worst cases of deferred maintenance, he noted. “But it is a challenge.”

Most of the inland waterways system structures are at the end of their design life-span and need to be rehabilitated, he said.

“The second part of the challenge,” he said, “is because of changes to demand that our country is placing and will place on our system and its functionality, both for protection, for navigation, for eco-system services like clean water for recreation and drinking, for hydropower, for public access for recreation.”

DeLuca says the physical environment is changing dramatically, due to the accelerated impacts of climate change, and the economic environment will create more and more demand on the inland waterways system.

“So we have to adapt the features that we’ve already built, let alone maintain and rehabilitate them properly,” he said. “We need to adapt them, and, in many cases we need to change or add certain features. In some cases we may be able to take some features out.

“Because the system physically is behaving differently, we have to change the nature of our built environment to engineer that watershed. So those are the two big challenges: inadequate maintenance and almost no money to invest in that adaptation and innovation to design the system for the next 50 to 100 years the way our parents did it for the current time in the last century.”

The general also talked about the challenges posed by two weather extremes, the massive flooding that occurred in 2011 and the severe drought in 2012. The 2011 incident, which saw the highest flood stages in recorded history on the lower Mississippi, indicated how the Mississippi continues to surprise.

“The challenge of the flooding period was how do we pass this massive amount of water—an incompressible fluid – to the sea with the least amount of damage,” he noted. “Now it worked, but the river did not behave exactly the way we designed it to, starting in 1928 and adapting it through the 1950s and 60s.”

So the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs to change how it operates the system now, and, in the future, it needs to adapt the system. “The river is changing constantly, and it’s adapting to things we did to it in the 1950s and 60s.”

For more on the floods of 2011, visit http://deltafarmpress.com/government/yazoo-backwater-flooding-photo-gallery

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