Missed Opportunity to Restore River and Protect Taxpayers
Gaithersburg, MD – Water resources legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday fails to remove counterproductive constraints on Upper Mississippi River restoration projects, increases subsidies for industries, and weakens environmental review of river projects nationwide.
“The League applauds Congressman Tim Walz for leading the fight to make restoration projects on the Upper Mississippi River more effective,” said Scott Kovarovics, Executive Director of the Izaak Walton League of America. “Unfortunately, by blocking debate on Mr. Walz’s amendment, the House missed an opportunity to advance a common-sense solution that would benefit fish and wildlife, local communities, and the outdoor recreation economy.”
Congressman Walz drafted an amendment to the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) to strengthen restoration work on the Mississippi River by including river bluffs and tributary confluences in restoration projects – at no extra cost to taxpayers. Unfortunately, the majority in the House blocked debate and voting on this amendment, which would have aligned restoration programs for the Mississippi with those for other large U.S. rivers.
The House also approved a measure to increase subsidies for the controversial Olmsted Locks and Dam project that grabbed attention last week when Congress included an earmark to increase the project price tag in the legislation ending the government shutdown. Under current law, the Olmsted project is financed evenly between industry and federal funds. However, the House WRRDA will give the project, which is already 400% over budget, a special funding exemption that will force taxpayers to pay 75% of the remaining $1.5 billion in project costs.
“The navigation industry already enjoys a 90% subsidy for its infrastructure construction and maintenance. America’s federal highway subsidy is only about 30% annually,” said Kovarovics. “The navigation industry asked for the Olmsted project – it should pay its equal share to finish it.”
In addition, the House approved provisions in WRRDA that short-circuit environmental review and curtail public participation in the decision-making process. These provisions strike at the heart of the National Environmental Policy Act, which facilitates robust project evaluation for the purpose of minimizing damage to the environment and ensuring a diverse array of interests have a voice in the process.
“For water and navigation projects that can alter the environment on a scale as large as the Upper Mississippi River, nothing is more short-sighted than limiting environmental assessments,” said Kovarovics. “The public has a right to know what impact these projects will have on their communities, the environment – and their wallets.”
Background on Upper Mississippi Restoration
In 1986, Congress established the Upper Mississippi River Restoration – Environmental Management Program (UMRR-EMP) to restore degraded habitat and fish and wildlife populations along the Upper Mississippi River in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. To date, the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and state and local partners have used the program to restore more than 100,000 acres of river habitat. Although the program has successfully restored habitat in and immediately along the navigation channel, its full potential remains limited because restoration projects are not authorized on the bluffs above – and tributaries flowing into – the river.
However, the Corps reports that “the most pervasive and damaging problem for the Upper Mississippi River system as a diverse, vital natural ecosystem is excessive sedimentation from upland and stream bank erosion in the watershed.” Today, much of that sediment, which is frequently laden with nitrogen and phosphorous pollution, is running off farm fields and bluffs into tributaries to the river. In 2010, the Corps recommended that Congress amend the UMRR-EMP to include work in the tributary delta confluences to successfully reduce sedimentation. This simple change would align the UMRR-EMP with other major river restoration programs created by Congress after 1986, including the Rio Grande Environmental Management Program and the Illinois River Basin Restoration Program.
Founded in 1922, the Izaak Walton League of America protects America's outdoors through education, community-based conservation, and promoting outdoor recreation. The League led the effort to establish the Upper Mississippi River national wildlife refuge in 1924 and continues to advocate for conserving and restoring this region on behalf of all river users.