Corps mission vital to corn, soy farmers

Published Oct. 6, 2009

What’s the connection between farming and the Corps?


Water was the subject Aug. 31 when Indiana soybean and corn farmers boarded the Belle of Louisville for a cruise up the Ohio River. But the shores of Louisville and Jeffersonville weren’t the only attractions. Representatives from the Louisville District and the corn and soybean industry briefed passengers, mostly farmers, on two of the Corps’ biggest missions—to ensure the Ohio River remains navigable for the millions of tons of soybeans and corn that move up and down the river annually, and to control flooding within the Ohio River Basin.

The lock and dam systems are the key to sustaining navigable waters. Impassable waters halt barge traffic which disrupts the flow of soy products and corn to the marketplace, and that’s not good for farmers. Rich McCarty of American Commercial Lines compared the consequences of inoperable locks with the effect Hurricane Katrina had on basis values.

"If a lock goes down, it’s not unrealistic to think we could see similar basis effects in the short run as to what we saw in Katrina," said McCarty. "And I know none of you really enjoyed seeing dollars basis drop right as we were heading into harvest. As grain wasn’t able to hit river markets, it found rail and truck markets, and so there was this domino effect. Significant amounts of farm dollars went away from the farm because there was this sudden impact to the transportation system."

Basis is the difference between the price at the local grain elevator and the price at a major market, such as Chicago. Basis values are negatively affected by higher transportation costs. Farmers earn less profit as the basis shrinks.

Many of the Corps’ 20 lock and dam systems along the Ohio River need repairs, but the Corps’ efforts to repair and replace aging infrastructure are limited by the amount of congressionally-appropriated money it receives. Limited funding forces the Corps to evaluate its locks and dams and decide where to direct the millions—and sometimes billions—of dollars to system repairs and replacement.

"We do invest in infrastructure, but not at the level we need to," said Deputy District Engineer David Dale. "So that forces us to go through a very systematic process and identify projects that need to be invested in now, rather than later. We try to take taxpayer dollars and put them where we get the biggest bang for our buck so that we have a reliable transportation system."

The last speaker for the morning, Louisville District Chief of Planning Sharon Bond, addressed the Ohio River Basin Comprehensive Study and how farmers can influence its direction.

The Ohio River Basin Comprehensive Reconnaissance Study is a collaborative effort between four Corps districts— Louisville, Huntington, Nashville and Pittsburgh— the 15 basin states and a multitude of stakeholders, project sponsors and the public.

The study addresses issues related to water resources management and development, flood damages, water supply, hydropower, fish and wildlife habitat, ecosystem restoration, recreation, navigation, existing flood control infrastructure, and any other issues raised by basin stakeholders and the public that relate to the basin’s water resources.

And because farmers depend heavily on navigation and flood control, they are significant stakeholders.

"The reason I’m here today is to make sure you know that the study is ongoing," Bond said. "But we don’t have the answers to everything. We need to find out from you what you perceive are the needs throughout the basin. Should there be a basin-wide water management plan that looks at the way we operate reservoir projects? Is there a need for infrastructure improvements? Please, let us know."