TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — A $12.3 billion water infrastructure bill that received final congressional approval Thursday will step up funding for improving ports and deepening sand-choked shipping channels in the Great Lakes region, supporters said.
The measure designates the lakes as a single navigational system for funding purposes, enabling the region to compete as one unit for money, instead of individual port communities being pitted against each other. It also requires the government to make greater use of an existing fund for maintaining deep-draft ports and waterways.
"This is an important step toward ensuring that the commercial importance and conservation of the Great Lakes remains a national priority," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat.
The bill received overwhelming bipartisan support after negotiators with the two chambers reached a compromise earlier this month, clearing the Senate on a 91-7 vote Thursday following House approval Tuesday, 412-4. It now goes to the White House for President Barack Obama's signature.
Great Lakes shipping companies and port operators have pleaded for more spending on harbor maintenance, particularly because low water levels since the late 1990s have forced vessels to carry lighter loads to avoid scraping bottom in shallow areas.
Shippers nationwide pay about $1.7 billion a year in fees on the cargo they haul to support the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which is meant to support dredging and port upkeep. But some has been diverted for other purposes or remains unspent. The fund presently has a surplus of $8 billion, despite a huge backlog of unmet dredging needs.
Just over 51 percent of the money collected by the fund is used for harbor maintenance. The bill will boost that portion to 67 percent in the next fiscal year. The rate will continue rising 3 percent annually until 2025, when it hits 100 percent.
"More than 18 million cubic yards of sediment clogs the Great Lakes Navigation System," said James Weakley, president of a regional coalition representing shipping industry management and labor, who described the bill's enactment as "critical."
The bill requires that Great Lakes projects get at least 10 percent of the money from the fund. And lawmakers said the designation of the lakes as a unified navigational system would give smaller harbors a better chance to get a share.
Another provision would authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take emergency measures as needed to deal with the threat of invasions by species such as Asian carp — large, voracious fish that have spread widely in the Mississippi River and its tributaries and are approaching the Great Lakes.
One such action would be closing the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock on the Mississippi in Minneapolis, considered a good location for cutting off the continued spread of silver and bighead carp farther upstream.
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