Congress’ accord on water resources bill means money for Mississippi projects


McClatchy Washington Bureau

For the first time since 2007, Congress has reached agreement on a water resources bill, and it promises to free funds for Mississippi flood control projects and to modernize many of the state’s ports and waterways, including the Port of Gulfport, the state’s senators announced Wednesday.

The accord on the Water Resources Development Act, reached by a House-Senate conference committee, is likely to be voted on by each chamber as soon as next week, Republican Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker said.

“It is my hope that this agreement will clear the path for much needed projects like the Mississippi Coastal Improvement Plan and provide new policy direction to help improve the construction, operation and maintenance of waterway and flood protection projects in our state and the entire nation,” Cochran said.

While the bill authorizes the spending for two years, release of the funds also must be approved in a separate appropriation process.

The conference agreement authorizes nearly $1.1 billion for the Coastal Improvement Plan, which Congress directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The plan aims to reduce hurricane and storm risks and restore ecosystems in the coastal counties of Hancock, Harrison and Jackson.

Included is $439 million toward projects already underway to restore barrier islands that act as a storm shield. Other parts of the corps plan, issued in 2009, call for mitigation against saltwater intrusion and shoreline erosion, as well as ecosystem restoration and fish and wildlife preservation.

The conference committee also agreed to reform the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which collects about $1.8 billion in user fees each year but has only been allowed to spend about half of the funds for their intended purposes. Release of additional money will allow for dredging of federal navigation channels and more equitable treatment of ports nationwide, setting aside money for underserved ports, including the Port of Gulfport, Cochran and Wicker said.

The Port of Gulfport would be able to deepen its channel, authorized at 36 feet but much shallower because of the lack of dredging for several years, as a result of a financing mechanism laid out in a Cochran-sponsored amendment.

The port is working on an arrangement with the Army Corps to accelerate the project by providing $8 million of its funds to match federal funding.

Wicker, a member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said the funding for modernized ports and commercial waterways is vital to maintaining competitiveness in a global market and would “boost trade and create jobs throughout Mississippi.”

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