MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Mayors from Mississippi River cities are calling on Congress to increase funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for infrastructure improvements and dredging projects that keep commerce flowing on the important waterway.
Leaders of the Mississippi Rivers Cities and Towns Initiative and the Delta Regional Authority addressed media Thursday after meeting in Memphis to discuss the Mississippi River economy. Thirteen mayors from Minnesota to Mississippi participated in the meeting, which resulted in agreements to help increase container shipping and reduce costly freight bottlenecks.
The meeting concluded the day after Congress voted to end a 16-day partial shutdown of the federal government. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said the group considered postponing the meeting, but decided to continue with the summit to call attention to issues related to the river economy.
The lower Mississippi River generated $164 billion in revenue and supported nearly 585,000 jobs in 2011, according to the Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee.
Still, river ports have dealt with flooding and drought in the past three years, causing water levels to reach near-record highs and dangerous lows. Barges ran aground during last year's low water, causing commercial traffic to stop on some sections of the river.
Ports also required heavy dredging to remove silt and other debris that prevented barges from entering the harbors. The corps also dredged the river itself to maintain shipping channel depths.
However, the corps found itself low on funds to do timely dredging in some ports. In an August 2012 meeting, corps officials noted that Congress has cut funding for dredging over the past few years.
In the Memphis district, Congress appropriated just $1 million for harbor dredging in 2013, and the amount of funding per harbor over the past three years has allowed for dredging of only two or three of the district's 10 harbors, according to the corps.
The lack of funds caused the port in Hickman, Ky. to be left off its emergency dredging list last year, said Chris Masingill, federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority. The authority, a federal-state partnership that works to improve the economy along the river's Delta region, came up with $50,000 to pay for dredging the Hickman port, Masingill said.
Other ports, including Memphis', have relied on locally-generated investment for emergency projects. Wharton characterized federal appropriations for dredging as "grossly inadequate."
"There is a federal interest here ... this is not a local waterway," Wharton said. "This is interstate commerce."
Mayor Larry Brown of Natchez, Miss., praised the Army Corps for doing all it can to maintain the river, but added that the corps does not get enough funding to properly address port dredging and infrastructure concerns. He noted that some locks and dams on the upper Mississippi River are 50 years old, or older, and need updating to avoid failures that would seriously hurt river shipping.
"We've got to get modern," Brown said. "We've got to build facilities that bring us into the new technology of operating globally."
Brown said the mayors need to work with their representatives in the House and Senate to get more federal funding.
"We've just got to stand up and tell it like it is: We are not getting a fair shake from Congress," Brown said.
Later, Brown added: "The only way you're going to correct the problems on the Mississippi River is with money."
Other mayors who participated in the meeting are Roy Buol of Dubuque, Iowa; Donnie Brown of New Madrid, Mo.; John Cox III of Greenville, Miss.; George Flaggs of Vicksburg, Miss.; Dickie Kennemore of Osceola, Ark.; David Kleis of St. Cloud, Minn.; David Lattus of Hickman, Ky.; Harry Rediger of Cape Girardeau, Mo.; James Spann of Hartford, Ill.; Tom Thompson of Grafton, Ill.; and Brant Walker of Alton, Ill.