DAVENPORT — When Dean Coleman hosted a Chinese visitor on his Humboldt County farm this past fall, he was told that country would increase its imports of U.S. soybeans and corn in the next five years.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad shared a similar story when Xi Jinping, assumed to be China’s next leader, visited Iowa. Xi wanted to visit the Mississippi River because while growing up he had read of its importance.
Branstad noted the river is one way Iowa farmers are connected to the global consumer base, including China.
Lock and dam improvements are critical to that economic opportunity, Coleman and Branstad explained during a recent meeting about the river’s structure.
“It gives our ag producers a competitive advantage,” Branstad said.
The Soy Transportation Coalition offered a handout showing it is $56.54 per metric ton cheaper to ship soybeans from Davenport to Shangai than it is to ship from Northern Mato Grosso, Brazil, to Shangai in the third quarter of 2012.
Of that total, all the savings came from getting soybeans from the farm to the ship. Barge shipping costs lowered the cost by $71.36/ton in the United States compared to Brazil.
The ocean freight cost was $14.82 per metric ton cheaper for Brazilian farmers to ship beans.
Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, noted Brazil is investing in its infrastructure.
“We need to get our act together and figure this out,” she said.
Most of the panelists discussed various economic opportunities lock and dam improvements would have, from taking advantage of the larger ships coming into the United States via the Panama Canal expansion to reduced input costs for farmers.
Larry Daily, president of Alter Barge Line, said improvements to the locks and dams could lengthen the shipping season.
Daily noted there has not been enough ice most of the winter to prevent shipping on the Mississippi this year.
He said oil exports are being shipped on the Illinois River because it is open all year.
Daily added farmers normally see basis levels fall when the Mississippi River is shut down during the winter as well.
The message about the effects of failing locks and dams need to be shared with the public, said Col. Mark Deschenes, commander and district engineer for the Rock Island District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
He said repairs at lock 25 near Winfield, Mo., caused shipping problems for a short time.
However, he said larger problems could shut down the river for longer periods and have a larger effect on the public.
Gary Meden, deputy commander for programs and project management for the Corps’ Rock Island District, explained the funding for locks and dams and how it does not include financing for improvements, just operations and maintenance.
Meden said major rehab projects have not been funded since 2009. Such projects could add years to the life of the locks and dams, he noted.
The panel that included the Corps, the soy coalition, Iowa Corn Growers, Waterways Council, Iowa Economic Development Authority, Iowa DNR and Iowa Department of Transportation discussed ways to fund and get Congressional action for lock and dam improvements.
Mike Toohey, CEO and president of the Waterways Council, talked about a plan his group offered which included raising the diesel tax shippers pay up to 9 cents per gallon to help pay for the work.
Other parts of funding lock and dam improvements would come from federal money, he said.
There was some discussion about various public-private partnerships including selling bonds to finance lock and dam improvements on the Mississippi.
It was noted Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Penn., will be chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Shuster has said waterways improvement is a top priority, Toohey added.
Branstad said he intends to bring up locks and dams during a meeting of governors at the end of the month.
Toohey also explained there is a Congressional caucus being formed to advocate for waterways improvements, such as lock and dam improvements on the Mississippi.