Capitol Currents Newsletter

Infrastructure: Going Down the Only Road It's Ever Known

June 22, 2021

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Infrastructure: Going Down The Only Road It's Ever Known

By Dustin H. Davidson, WCI Director of Government Relations


Events over the past month have reinforced the importance of America’s traditional grey infrastructure, especially the critical infrastructure needed to keep our economy moving. According to the Corps of Engineers, 55 percent of gasoline delivered to the Nashville area travels via pipeline, and 45 percent travels by barge. After the Colonial Pipeline cyber-attack, the Corps noted that the inland barge industry increased the number of fuel barges going into Nashville and coordinated with authorities to work around existing maintenance schedules on adjacent waterways to increase supply. However, the lack of available pipeline capacity from the Gulf Coast to the Southeast and mid-Atlantic regions caused the national gas price average to rise to its highest level in six years.


In addition to the cyber-attack, around the same time, Arkansas (ARDOT) discovered a critical fracture to a steel beam on the Hernando de Soto Bridge (I-40 bridge) while performing regularly scheduled inspections. The crack, which was over an inch wide, was severe enough to require ARDOT to alert state and federal authorities to immediately close the I-40 bridge to highway traffic as well as the Mississippi River to waterborne traffic. While safety is undoubtedly the top priority for the inland waterways industry, so is efficiency and expedience. For the past five years, 430,000 tons of goods pass beneath the I-40 bridge every day. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the closure created a backlog of 62 boats with 1,058 barges. With exports halted, commodities like soybeans, corn, distillate fuel oils, and gasoline could not reach domestic and international markets.


The economy struggled to rebound because of these issues, and in the passing days, consumer concerns continued to the point where gas stations could not find supply to meet demand. Consumers began panic-buying gasoline, shippers began charging more to ship, and an already hobbled supply chain suffered a more significant setback. President Biden continuously mentions plans to invest in human infrastructure concurrently with the American Jobs Plan, but the consequences of inaction to strengthening the critical systems our society and economy depend on have already arrived.


As the industry that is the most fuel-efficient and environmentally responsible surface mode of transportation, it is more important now than ever to elevate the significance of inland waterways modernization. Because the question, “What do we do if we have a critical lock failure or perpetual closures?” is looking more like it could become a reality given recent events in other systems.


Therefore, if the Biden Administration expects to provide a transformational investment in the future of American infrastructure, they should focus on what is most important to the economy and consumers, foundational infrastructure.


WCI Members Publish Op-Eds

WCI’s members have been bylining op-eds and commentaries on the importance of the waterways in key states or regions, with the first published in the West Virginia Charleston Gazette-Mail by Robert McCoy (Amherst Madison) on April 9, and another by George Leavell (Wepfer Marine) in the Tennessee Daily Memphian on May 25. If you wish to submit an op-ed in your city, state or region contact Deb Calhoun,


Celebrating 125 years of ‘Transforming America’s Harvest’

By Mike Seyfert, President and CEO, National Grain and Feed Association


The National Grain and Feed Association’s (NGFA) year has been off to a busy start. NGFA is focused on several proactive priorities that reflect a changing federal and global landscape while celebrating its 125th anniversary year.


But first, I’d like to reflect on some successes over the past year. NGFA and the entire grain, feed and processing industry are grateful for the efforts of Waterways Council, Inc. to secure congressional passage of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2020, which paves the way for an additional $1 billion for inland waterways construction projects by amending the cost-share formula for inland waterways projects for the next decade.


Looking forward, NGFA’s top infrastructure priority is advancing the Navigation Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP) beginning with a new construction start for Lock and Dam 25 on the Upper Mississippi River. NGFA also is focused on securing $7 billion to finance the 15 inland waterway navigation projects identified in the Army Corps of Engineers’ Capital Investment Strategy.

NGFA looks forward to continuing its fruitful partnership with WCI as it commemorates its 125th anniversary with a series of initiatives focused on lofty goals for the future of the industry and NGFA’s new tagline: “Transforming America’s Harvest.”


The first theme for NGFA’s anniversary is “transforming the face of our future.” Fostering an inclusive environment that attracts people of diverse backgrounds is crucial to the health and vitality of the industry and the NGFA. Earlier this year, the National Grain and Feed Foundation launched a scholarship in partnership with the Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS) national society. And the Association soon will be accepting applications to its seventh class of early- to mid-career members in NGFA’s Committee Apprentice Program, which is one of the best gateways for the transformative ideas.


The second theme is “transforming the health of our lands.” NGFA, which this year formed a new Climate Change and Sustainability Task Force, recognizes waterways infrastructure and the barges that carry U.S. grains and oilseeds as crucial to sustainable agriculture. A single 15-barge tow transports the same amount of cargo as 216 rail cars and 1,050 trucks.


But modernizing U.S. infrastructure is only part of the puzzle. Targeting the most environmentally sensitive portions of farmland with proven conservation practices will serve to increase the health of America’s soil, air and water, keep America’s farmers competitive, and boost rural economies that depend on agricultural production. The National Grain and Feed Foundation has funded an NGFA study, which will document the global impact of idling productive U.S. land, including the signal it would send to global competitors to convert more environmentally sensitive land to replace sustainable U.S. production.


Our third theme is “transforming workplace safety culture.” Creating a culture of safety in every facility and farm where grain is handled will contribute to a healthier agricultural community and potentially save lives that are tragically lost in grain-related incidents every year. To supplement an already robust suite of safety training materials available at, NGFA will publish a new “Firefighting Manual: A Guide for Operators of Grain Handling Facilities and Fire Department Officials,” in 2021.


And finally, NGFA is focused on “transforming global markets.” As the global population continues to grow, fostering an open global market will help U.S. agriculture contribute to the goal of achieving sustainable food security around the world. The NGFA continues to support a U.S. trade agenda that expands market access and fosters science-based health and safety rules.

Again, NGFA is grateful for its collaboration and partnership with WCI. Here’s to a transformative year! 


WCI Conservation Column: The Interior Least Tern’s Comeback Is a Model Conservation Success


The article here by Rachel Fritts was originally printed online for Audubon Magazine on February 18, 2021 and reprinted with permission, with this new introduction, by Ken Buchholz, Director, Audubon Center at Riverlands:


The recent de-listing of the Interior Least Tern tells us that birds can respond positively to the restoration and re-creation of habitat. The Corps’ Least Tern nesting project at Riverlands is one local example of the larger, thoughtful, and creative approaches needed to achieve lasting bird conservation outcomes on the river.


A start of the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP), which is supported by Audubon, other respected conservation organizations and the larger coalition of WCI members and partners, would further provide an extraordinary opportunity for conservation organizations to work with the Corps to restore critical Upper Mississippi River habitat at scale. Floodplain and island restoration, shoreline protection, and water level management that support the river’s vital ecosystem functions are necessary, and moreover, they are good for both birds and people.




The inland population of America’s littlest tern recently left the endangered species list. Here’s how conservationists brought the birds back.


On a cloudy day last July, a group of conservationists near St. Louis, Missouri, hopped into a small boat armed with cardboard boxes and yellow leg bands just a few millimeters in diameter. They motored toward a concrete barge anchored offshore, where they rounded up 18 squeaking, fuzzy, golf-ball-size Interior Least Tern chicks into a box for banding.


“Good luck, little guys,” said Jeff Meshach, deputy director of the St. Louis-based wildlife hospital World Bird Sanctuary, during a livestream of the banding. After placing a delicate yellow band on one leg of each chick, he gently spilled them back onto the barge—their nesting habitat parked in a pond along the Mississippi River. When they grow up, it’s possible they’ll return to nest here; the bands let the conservationists keep track of them. “Hope all of you come back next year and raise your own kids here,” he said.


When Interior Least Terns were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1985, the birds had vanished from much of their historic range, including this area near St. Louis where the Missouri River meets the Mississippi River. But they have since bounced back, and today roughly 18,000 birds raise their chicks on nest barges and sandbars across nearly 3,000 miles of river in 18 states. Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the Interior Least Tern’s recovery by removing it from the federal list of endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), effective February 12.


Environmental groups have cheered the delisting, though they emphasize the move shouldn’t mean an end to conservation efforts. “This is great news and definitely warranted,” says Mike Parr, president of the advocacy group American Bird Conservancy. “But it will need ongoing vigilance to ensure it remains off the Endangered Species Act list.”


The Least Tern is America’s smallest tern: Adults weigh less than two ounces and measure eight to nine inches long. The species is widely distributed, nesting on Pacific and Atlantic coast beaches as well as along rivers’ soft shorelines. But the birds that nest in the country’s interior is managed as a distinct population. During the summer nesting season, Interior Least Terns can be found along the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, and other rivers throughout the Central United States.


Those rivers have undergone significant change over the past century, and the birds have, too. Beginning in the mid-20th century, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged and streamlined complex river networks to construct a single wide, deep passage to make room for ships moving goods. These management efforts did away with many secondary tributaries and sandy islands where terns liked to nest. The few beaches that survived remained connected to the mainland, which made the terns’ shallow nests easy pickings for predators like foxes and coyotes. By the 1980s, Interior Least Tern populations had plummeted to fewer than 2,000 adult birds; they were listed as federally endangered in 1985.


Three splotchy Interior Least Tern eggs sit directly on the sand on the nesting barge near St. Louis. The eggs are well camouflaged amid the shells and sand; the species doesn’t build a nest. Photo: Tara Hohman


The listing forced the Army Corps to protect the remaining Interior Least Tern habitat, and their numbers began climbing back up—but not significantly enough to ensure the population’s long-term survival. Then, about 20 years ago, Paul Hartfield with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) approached the Mississippi Valley Division of the Corps with a proposition: Rather than working at odds, FWS and the Corps could work together.


In a recent interview with Audubon magazine, Hartfield recalled his argument. At the turn of the millennium, the Corps generally fought against the ESA and the FWS, viewing conservation policy as bureaucratic red tape that interfered with their construction projects. Instead, he argued, the Mississippi Valley Division of the Corps could save time and money by integrating conservation into their programs at a fundamental level. By making a few small changes, they could, for example, dredge rivers more intentionally to construct a healthy, complex ecosystem for a number of endangered species like pallid sturgeon, fat pocketbook mussels, and Least Terns.


“What had been lost in the river ever since they started managing it was habitat and depth diversity,” says Hartfield, who served as the Interior Least Tern lead recovery biologist for 10 years. “So, we agreed that what we would do is manage for habitat complexity and explore the possibility of opening up some of the [river] channels that had been closed.”


The Corps was skeptical at first, but they agreed to try. First, they carved experimental 200-foot notches in dikes that had been installed to streamline river flow and reduce erosion. The notches redirected some water into secondary streams that disconnected islands of sandy habitat from the mainland, protecting nesting birds from predators and human beachgoers. Dikes with notches proved to be just as structurally sound as those without—and ended up being cheaper to build because they used less material.

“It was a real wake-up call for the Corps,” says Hartfield. By 2013, nearly a third of all dikes in the Lower Mississippi (roughly 300) had been notched, and new dikes were constructed with this feature already in place.


The Corps also began to construct new sandbar islands for terns using sand routinely dredged from the bottom of the river, which they would otherwise dump in a heap offshore. During a trial of this technique on the Ohio River in 2002, terns began nesting on the new sandbars the very next day. One month later, there were 64 active nests.


A nesting barge floats in a pond along the Mississippi River near St. Louis. The barge is a floating flat surface covered in sand with a one-meter fence to keep predators out. Its sole purpose is to serve as nesting habitat for birds. Photo: Tara Hohman


They also began experimenting with placing barges in rivers to serve as nesting islands for terns. The nesting barge near St. Louis is an example of a project managed by the Corps in cooperation with conservation groups, including Audubon. “It’s a very unique and collaborative partnership we have,” says Tara Hohman, a conservation scientist with Missouri’s Audubon Center at Riverlands. “The Corps manages the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary where our Audubon Center is located, so we have a lot of our conservation work based around their managed areas.”


The collaborative efforts have paid off. About 80 percent of the Interior Least Tern’s habitat is now managed by the Corps in this way, and the population numbers roughly 18,000 individuals. The Corps is also applying this management approach to other endangered species conservation efforts, such as the Least Bell’s Vireo in southern California.


Hartfield, who drafted the recommendation to delist the Interior Least Tern before retiring this year, is confident that ecosystem-based management of the tern’s habitat will continue independently of its endangered species status. “Conservation is now part of that ecosystem,” Hartfield says.


The Corps-managed nesting barge near St. Louis, for instance, will persist as tern habitat for the foreseeable future. And conservation groups will keep tabs to make sure the birds also stick around even after their federal protections have disappeared. “Monitoring post-delisting is just as important as monitoring while listed,” Hohman says.


WCI Member Spotlight: Southwest Shipyard

Southwest Shipyard was founded in 1954 when Henry Hilliard recognized the need for a barge fleeting facility in Channelview, Texas to serve Houston’s expanding ship channel. As traffic in the ship channel grew, so did their customers’ needs for fleeting, as well as repair, while the barges were idle. Mr. Hilliard quickly met these demands, which marked their entry into the repair market. They continued building their business based on a reputation for quality, service, and safety. That reputation now spans more than six decades and three generations of family ownership. Over the years, the company Mr. Hilliard started has changed quite a bit by continuing to respond to market needs. Southwest Shipyard has, and continues to, operate on the principle of listening to customers’ ever-changing needs and by continuing to diversity to better meet those needs.  Today, Mr. Hilliard’s grandson, Henry “Hank” Hilliard, is Chairman of the Board. 


Southwest Shipyard currently operates four shipyard facilities along the Texas Gulf Coast - all with convenient deep-water access to the Gulf of Mexico servicing the marine industry. Southwest Shipyard currently provides services that include new construction, major conversions, topside repairs, drydocking, surface preparation, painting, gas freeing, cleaning, steaming, flaring, and water treatment. Capability highlights include over 900,000 square feet of indoor fabrication space, 500-ton crane capacity, and an enclosed 200’ x 54’ blast and paint shop in New Construction. In Barge and Boat Repair, a 300’ x 80’ indoor paint booth is accessible along with deep-water drydock capacity of 24’ draft above the blocks. Barge Cleaning, Steam Dock, and Water Works boast 2 state-of-the-art USCG certified flares (99.999% destruction efficiency), 4 state -of-the-art LPG flares, and the ability to accommodate 30,000-barrel (1.2 million gallon) barge water shipments, respectively.


As one of the largest shipyards and barge cleaning facilities on the Gulf Coast, Southwest Shipyard is equipped to build and repair a wide range of barges, inland vessels, OSVs, ferries, tugs, and dredges. Their 14 drydocks and four rail systems are capable of hauling out up to fourteen 30,000bbl barges at a time on land, giving them one of the most substantial out-of-water repair capacities in the industry.


Their management team and workforce are some of the most highly trained, experienced, and dedicated in the industry. Together they are focused on safely providing quality in everything they do, and they take great pride in the fact that they do it all “Faster, Safer, Better” to live up to their motto. With a workforce of over 600 people, they were able to maintain a TRIR of 0.85 last year. Southwest Shipyard has proudly continued to accomplish impressive safety results with a TRIR under 1.0 for the past five years.


With Scott Theriot joining their team in 2020 as President and CEO, Southwest Shipyard is excited not only to continue strengthening their core business but also to continue diversifying in new markets. Scott said, “We highly value the work and information provided by WCI on projects and legislation that could impact our industry and company, today and in the future. Having this resource is a great way to stay informed and helps us manage our operations in these challenging times. We look forward to fostering our relationship with WCI in the years to come as we continue to diversify our repair and new construction operations in both the commercial and government sectors.”

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Save the Dates for WCI Annual Meeting and Fall Waterways Symposium, November 2-4

After last year’s Annual Meeting and Fall Symposium were held virtually due to COVID-19, this year, WCI will hold its Annual Meeting, Board of Directors meeting, other WCI meetings and the Symposium in-person, November 2–4 in St. Louis at the Live! by Loews hotel near Busch Stadium.


Live! by Loews - St. Louis is an “all-new, unprecedented luxury St. Louis experience in the midst of the city’s sports and entertainment mecca of Ballpark Village steps away from iconic Busch Stadium. With first-class hospitality and superior amenities.” The agenda—which will include a special dinner event at the ballpark—and registration details will soon be provided. Look forward to seeing you there!


Get Your Popcorn

The Emmy-Award nominated TV series “Built to Last” is an informative series of half-hour specials exploring the skill, training and artistry of trade union members and contractors. The series, an ABC7 Chicago partnership entering its 7th Season, highlights the projects they’ve worked on and the people whose lives they have touched and is sponsored by the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters. Aired recently were two new segments on locks and dams (Waterways Wellness and Water Works) that feature commentaries about the importance of the inland waterways, including Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and WCI President/CEO Tracy Zea. Watch them here: and


Furlong Honored as Maritime Person of the Year 2021

Kent Furlong, President of WCI member company Hines Furlong Line, was honored as 2021 Maritime Person of the Year by The International Propeller Club of the United States – Port of Paducah on May 20 in Paducah, KY.


Infrastructure Examined at Inland Marine Expo 2021

The Inland Marine Expo (IMX2021) was held in-person this year May 24-26 in St. Louis. On May 25, Paul Rohde, WCI’s Vice President, Midwest Region, moderated a panel, “Infrastructure Report: Projects and the Need for Investment to Critical Infrastructure,” with panelists Mike Steenhoek, Executive Director, Soy Transportation Coalition; David Loomes, Vice President, Supply Chain, Continental Cement; and Lou Dell’Orco, Chief of the Operations Division for the Corps’ St. Louis District. With Olmsted Locks and Dam and the Lower Monongahela’s modernization projects completed, those at Kentucky and Chickamauga advancing, and Montgomery just starting, the panel addressed the future of the Corps’ portfolio of authorized lock and dam construction projects, industry engagement on Capitol Hill, the latest on an infrastructure package from Washington, DC, and how trends in Corps funding impact reliability and capacity on the waterways.


First Virtual Capitol Hill Fly-In a Success for WCI

WCI’s first-ever virtual Capitol Hill fly-in was held in March and April, with more than 50 meetings attended by nearly 100 WCI members. A targeted approach to the meetings was taken this year, with WCI meeting with key legislator and staff that will be particularly important for FY22 appropriations, and the infrastructure package being negotiated.


Mississippi River Closes to Barge Traffic After Bridge Break in Memphis

After a large crack was found on the I-40 Hernando de Soto Bridge that crosses the Mississippi River between Memphis, West Memphis, and Arkansas, the Mississippi River was closed for nearly four days in May. WCI responded to media inquiries on the impact to inland waterways shipping from the New York Times, NPR, Associated Press, Bloomberg, WNAX ag radio, and local (Memphis) TV and newspapers.

In one week, more than three million tons of commodities move through the Memphis area that include:

  • Over 1.3 million tons of agricultural exports
  • Almost 400,000 tons of construction materials
  • Almost 400,000 tons of chemicals
  • Almost 300,000 tons of petroleum products
  • Over 250,000 tons of ores and metals
  • Over 220,000 tons of coal
  • Over 85,000 tons of other products


In Memoriam

It is with great sadness that WCI shares the news of the passing of Robert Holifield, co-founder and principal, with former Senator Blanche Lincoln, of the Lincoln Policy Group, a WCI lobby firm. Through his wealth of experience, Robert offered advice and counsel to WCI over many years. He is survived by his wife, Kat, and three young children. A GoFundMe account has been established ( to help support the family.


2021 Industry Calendar (subject to change)

  • August 4-6: Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association (GICA) 116th Annual Seminar ( (Westin Canal Place, New Orleans)
  • September 16: Seamen’s Church Institute Maritime Training Benefit Luncheon (Houston, TX, Marriott Marquis)
  • September 26–29: American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) Annual Convention (Austin, TX JW Marriott)
  • October 12: Tennessee River Valley Association Annual Meeting (Franklin, TN, Embassy Suites Hotel at Cool Springs)
  • October 20-22: American Waterways Operators Fall Convention & Board of Directors’ Meeting (Pittsburgh, PA, The Fairmont)
  • October 21: Seamen’s Church Institute Silver Bell Award Dinner (New York, Pier 60)
  • November 2–4: WCI Annual Meeting and 18th Annual Waterways Symposium (St. Louis, MO, Loews Hotel by Busch Stadium)
  • December 1–3: International WorkBoat Show (New Orleans, Morial Convention Center)
  • December 9: Seamen’s Church Institute 22nd Annual River Bell Award Luncheon (Paducah, KY, Paducah McCracken County Convention Center)