story by Ryan Saylor
Just a week after the government shutdown ended, lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives found a reason to come together and it may result in long overdue improvements to the Arkansas River Navigational System.
The House passed H.R. 3080, also known as the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013 (WRRDA), on Wednesday (Oct. 23) by a vote of 417-3.
The bill came to the attention of many in August, after U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville, Okla., made the statement at a town hall event that the locks along the Arkansas River have "a 50/50 chance of failing at any given day."
It was later confirmed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the lock system along the river were "approaching the end of their design life," requiring future investment.
With the passage of H.R. 3080 and the Senate's version of the bill, S. 601, in May, Executive Director Gene Higginbotham of the Arkansas Waterways Commission said the river is one step closer to funding badly-needed repairs to the locks.
"It creates availability of more funding to address the maintenance backlog that we have on the Arkansas River," he said.
According to a statement from Mullin's Washington office, the "WRRDA allows the books to be cleared of previously authorized funding for projects that are old and unwarranted and redirects these funds towards critical infrastructure needs."
While that is a benefit to the locks along the system, Higginbotham worries about a project that has long been an underfunded priority – deepening the river channel to 12 feet. He said the projects Mullin refers to could include the 12 foot channel, but at this point there's no way to know.
"Some of the work has been funded (for the 12 foot channel), but we're not sure how it's going to be considered … if it's actually received funding or not. It could be put on that list."
Higginbotham has been in contact with Arkansas' congressional delegation as recently as last month about getting the project authorized, adding "we don't want to lose it."
U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, did attempt to protect the 12-foot channel project, according to Jack Pandol, Crawford's press secretary.
"We did introduce an amendment in the Rules Committee to the WRRDA bill on the 12-Foot channel, but because the bill was considered under a structured rule, the committee had the authority to pretty narrowly tailor what would be considered, and ruled our amendment out," he said. "The amendment is a simple technical correction that would clarify that the project for the 12-Foot channel is underway, putting it less at risk for de-authorization. This is a priority for the Congressman and he is going to continue fighting to see if we can get some kind of correction in conference."
U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, said in a statement that the bill allows the Corps to complete important projects and create jobs without wasteful spending.
"It includes no earmarks and will save hardworking taxpayers money, streamline the review process, eliminate red tape and upgrade and modernize our nation’s infrastructure. Creating jobs and improving our nation’s ability to compete is critical, and that’s why I support it."
The next step for the bill is a conference committee to join the House and Senate bills. U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, said he was pleased with the House version of the bill and hoped the conferenced bill "contains common-sense reforms to protect taxpayers and support our nation’s waterways."
Higginbothom said his hope was that a member of the Arkansas congressional delegation would be involved in the conference committee considering the bill in order to protect the interests of communities along the Arkansas River.
"There's a lot of similarities in the bills, but there's some different things as far as language," he said. "I'm hopeful that somebody from Arkansas will have good representation in the conference."
While no timeline has been set for when the House and Senate would conference, Pandol said it would likely happen soon.
"Because it passed with such overwhelming support, they (leaders in the House and Senate) really believe that there's a lot of positive momentum after this vote. They're expected to get to work pretty quick on this."
Higginbothom is hoping that holds true.
"Outside of a couple of things, it's really a good piece of legislation. And I appreciate all their work on it."