By Carey Gillam and Charles Abbott
KANSAS CITY/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A low-water crisis now plaguing part of the Mississippi River system will boost industry arguments for long-delayed government improvement projects along U.S. rivers, though looming federal budget battles remain a high hurdle.
Experts say even as billions of dollars of river-borne commerce slow along the shallow section of the Mississippi, an even larger economic catastrophe is looming as dozens of critical infrastructure improvements and repairs up and down the entire U.S. river system remain long overdue.
"The waterways industry in recent years has been very frustrated that the president and Congress talk about railways and roadways and runways but they never talk about the rivers," said Amy Larson, president National Waterways Conference.
"I am mindful that we are facing the fiscal cliff and as a nation we need to curtail spending," said Larson. But "we would be misguided not to continue to support our infrastructure."
Advocates for reform of the way the U.S. deals with inland waterways infrastructure has been building for years. Now the potential disaster-in-the-making tied to declining water levels along a 180-mile stretch of the Mississippi River could change a recalcitrant Congress, the advocates hope.
Even though the current low-water problem is not tied to failing infrastructure, it is underscoring how quickly financial losses can climb when river transportation slows.
"We have $9 billion of exports sitting on barges because they cannot get down the Mississippi River because of the drought," U.S. Trade Representative Ronald Kirk said on Tuesday.
"What we're seeing right now on the middle Mississippi really underscores the importance of this transportation artery to the nation," said Mike Toohey, president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc.(WCI), an advocacy group for barge operators and other companies that rely on river transportation.
Experts say about $8 billion in investment in 26 priority projects is needed to modernize locks and dams - many more than 50 years old - along the 12,000 miles of inland waterways critical for shipping crops, fertilizer, scrap, salt, coal and other bulk commodities.
No stretch is more critical than the Mississippi River basin, which accounts for 9,000 miles of navigable waterways. But now declining water levels along the river just south of St. Louis, Missouri, to Cairo, Illinois, is forcing barge tows to lighten loads or risk groundings.
The river and its tributaries draw on a region that produces 90 percent of U.S. farm exports, a key for the U.S. balance of trade. Sixty percent of grain exports go through New Orleans.
LONG TERM PROBLEMS?
U.S. barge operators have complained for years about improvements needed in river locks and dams to manage water flows and keep U.S. farm exports competitive with modernizing exporters like Brazil and Argentina.
An expansion of the Panama Canal, expected by 2015, means larger container ships and a need for deeper U.S. harbors to accommodate them, and inland waterways need new or rehabilitated lock and dam facilities to speed shipments to the ports.
"We just can't be seen as a fully reliable trade partner if our major supply chain is disrupted as it is now," said Toohey.
John Peabody, commander for the Mississippi Valley division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told a U.S. House committee in April that "major investments" were required for aging inland waterways. He cited 221 locks with an average age of 60 years showing signs of wear and tear.
"In a select few cases, the condition of a lock or dam has deteriorated to a point that catastrophic failure is a real possibility," Peabody told lawmakers.
Last year, a Lockport, Illinois, lock and dam facility south of Chicago saw a 280-foot section of a canal wall collapse, disrupting commercial navigation.
"The need for us to look holistically at all of the infrastructure around trade is critical," Kirk said this week.
BUDGET CRUNCH TIME
But that does not mean money will loosen, even if there is a landmark deal by year-end to avoid the federal fiscal cliff.
Critics say inconsistent funding from Congress over the last decade has caused piece-meal project work that led to delays and cost overruns. The Olmsted lock and dam replacement project on the lower Ohio River is commonly cited.
The key lock and dam project -- on the single busiest stretch for U.S. river freight -- was to cost $775 million when authorized in 1988. Construction began in 1992 and the projected cost has leapt to $2.918 billion with portions still incomplete.
River advocates now pin hopes to legislation slated for introduction in January by U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). The American Waterworks Act would increase funding for river-related infrastructure and speed up project approvals.
The bill would raise the fuel tax on waterway users for the "Inland Waterways Trust Fund" and increase matching federal funds. The industry is welcoming the legislation -- including the increased tax on themselves.
"We're building momentum for this legislation," said Toohey. "We're optimistic to get this passed in 2013."
Barge operators say such reform is needed fast.
"The time for action is now," Richard Calhoun, president of Cargo Carriers, a unit of Cargill, told a U.S. Senate environmental and public works committee this autumn.
"The United States has enjoyed a natural advantage over the rest of the world for over a century because of our inland waterway system," said Calhoun. "We cannot allow ourselves to be surpassed by other nations currently strengthening their infrastructure investment."
(Additional reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago.; Editing by Peter Bohan and Sofina Mirza-Reid)