The St. Louis District commander of the Army Corps of Engineers was addressing the River Soundings conference, an annual gathering organized by the Greenway Network to bring attention to Missouri and Mississippi River issues.
Lock 27 on the Mississippi River, at the Chain of Rocks canal, had just been shut down, Col. Hall said that morning. It's the southernmost and busiest of the 27 locks and dams along the Upper Mississippi. Closing it for emergency repairs meant that hundreds of barges carrying grain and other goods, primarily related to agriculture, had to moor along the river for five days.
Barge operators already had been slowed down by the drought this summer. The delays cost farmers, agricultural businesses, exporters and manufacturers millions of dollars in lost economic opportunity. More than 73 million tons of cargo pass through Lock 27 each year, including about half of the nation's farm exports.
So it's not surprising that this week, six U.S. senators from Mississippi River states wrote a letter to the leaders of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, urging the committee to "expedite the construction and operations" of the aging lock and dam system along the Mississippi River.
The letter was signed by both Missouri senators, Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill; both Illinois senators, Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Dick Durbin; and both Iowa senators, Republican Chuck Grassley and Democrat Tom Harkin.
The letter properly cites the aging lock and dam system — built after the Great Depression — as hugely important to the nation's economy. Cargill Carriers President Rick Calhoun made the same point in testimony before the Environmental and Public Works committee a week ago. He urged passage of a new Water Resources Development Act, a bill that would put a combination of federal money and money from industry river users such as Cargill into rebuilding and expanding the existing river infrastructure.
"Investment spending that supports competitive exports is essential to economic growth," said Mr. Calhoun, the former chairman of Waterways Council Inc., the industry's lobbying organization.
Calhoun and the six senators are right. But to win their argument, they have to find their way past today's new political reality.
Before the tea party revolution of 2010, spending money on new locks and dams would be called public works spending. Now it's condemned in conservative circles as "stimulus" spending.
Back before stimulus turned into a four-letter word, lawmakers in both parties consistently fought for public works spending for highways and bridges, locks and dams and sewer and water projects. These projects helped the nation grow. They created jobs.
Last year, we urged Congress to put more funding into both the physical infrastructure along the Mississippi River and the environmental and flood protection of the Missouri River. The two rivers and their major tributaries are critical to the nation's economy. The rivers must be viewed as a single system. That's the lesson of both the flood of 2011 and the drought of 2012.
This concept is not difficult to understand; Congress used to get it. In 2007 Congress passed a bill that dedicated nearly equal amounts to navigation projects ($2 billion) as it did to protecting the ecosystem often damaged as a result of navigation.
But since then, Congress has stopped and started projects, failed to fund its commitments and left the damaged reality that Col. Hall faced when Lock 27 had to be shut down.
Col. Hall told the River Soundings conference that the corps, like the business community, understands the need for both massive building projects and environmental mitigation. But the corps can't build without funding.
Money for roads and dams, river banks and wetlands?
That's so 2007.
In the current political environment, Republicans and Democrats in Congress will put their names on a letter advocating for business interests back home. But they won't do the hard work needed to pass badly needed public works spending. God forbid someone call it "stimulus."
How about calling it investing in America?
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.