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A group of private and public interests with ties to the Arkansas River has hired a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm to press its case before Congress and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for more federal money to pay for high-dollar improvements on the 445-mile McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.

Members of the informal Arkansas River Coalition have been pressing the case on their own, with little success, for 20 years.

"We've been working with Washington, D.C., and our [U.S.] senators and congressmen for the past 20, 25 years, trying to get critical maintenance backlog, 12-foot channel and stuff that is very important for the navigation system," said Marty Shell, who is a second-generation owner of Five Rivers Distribution, which operates the ports of Fort Smith and Van Buren.

"We've educated a lot of politicians, we've spent a lot of time and a lot of money going to D.C. explaining our cause and our reasons and not only what it means for our job retention but for job creation and economic development. But we just really haven't gotten anywhere."

Instead, the group has turned to the lobbying firm of Van Scoyoc Associates, a 25-year-old government affairs firm that boasts "a deep bench of policy experts, a network spanning Capitol Hill and the Federal agencies and the know-how to achieve results."

The Van Scoyoc team includes Geoff Bowman, who the firm describes as one of the nation's leading policy professionals on water resources and infrastructure policy. He is former staff director for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee.

Another member of the team has an Arkansas connection. Lauren Cowles is a Little Rock native and one-time aide to former U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.

Diedre Smith, director of the Arkansas Waterways Commission, told members of the Little Rock Port Authority board of directors on Wednesday that the coalition concluded it needed to tap D.C. expertise to help navigate congressional committees and federal bureaucracy.

"They know the schedule, they know the language, they know the staffers," she said.

The Port Authority's board of directors on Wednesday voted to engage Van Scoyoc and enter into a memorandum of understanding with the coalition, which would pay Van Scoyoc a $10,000 monthly retainer. The resolution includes a clause in which the authority isn't responsible for the contract if money isn't available to pay the firm.

"Having the Port of Little Rock step up and sign that contract is a great thing to have," Shell said. "They did a tremendous job today."

The coalition has three priorities.

Foremost is work to prevent the threat of a catastrophic breach at what is sometimes called the Three Rivers Project at the confluence of the Mississippi, Arkansas and White rivers in southeast Arkansas.

A series of man-made structures protects the integrity of the navigation system at that point by keeping the White River separated from the Arkansas River. Flooding, however, periodically damages those structures.

A catastrophic breach could disrupt the flow of the rivers and halt barge traffic navigation for up to a year. Opened in 1969 at a cost of $1.4 billion -- representing at the time the Corps' most expensive project -- the system helps keep the river in check for the barges that move more than 12 million tons of cargo worth nearly $4 billion annually.

The navigation system also provides flood protection, hydropower, water supply and recreation benefits, according to the Waterways Commission.

The focus of many of the repairs in the Three Rivers area is on the Melinda Structure, which is like a raised concrete road and acts as a levee separating the navigable portion of the White from the unnavigable lower Arkansas. Barge traffic uses the White to enter or exit the Mississippi. A canal 10 miles long in Arkansas County connects the White with the navigable portion of the Arkansas.

The Melinda Structure was built in 1989 at a cost of $8.9 million. But the Corps of Engineers has spent more than $20 million repairing the structure, which is damaged whenever high water on the Mississippi backs up into the White.

The expensive repairs are necessary for the integrity of the navigation system, but the money takes away from ongoing maintenance of the system's 18 locks and dams. A permanent fix would free money from the Corps' maintenance and operations accounts to clear the backlog of work on the locks and dams.

A $3 million, three-year study developing a permanent fix is almost finished, according to Smith.

The coalition also wants money appropriated for an estimated $153 million in backlog of maintenance to the system, $139 million of which the Corps of Engineers has classified as critical.

Its members also want the Arkansas River's navigation channel dredged to 12 feet, which will allow fully loaded barges to traverse the system. The system is only authorized to operate with a 9-foot deep river channel, which leaves businesses in Arkansas and Oklahoma that depend on the river at a competitive disadvantage.

Enlisting Van Scoyoc has already paid dividends, according to Shell and others.

The firm's success includes placing $84.9 million worth of maintenance projects in the Corps' fiscal 2018 work plan, which was released last week. Of that total, $49 million is allocated to Arkansas' portion of the system.

It also helped include text in the latest Water Resources and Development Act to require the Corps to expedite consideration of the Three Rivers Project study to be included in the act.

The Senate version of the bill also includes language developed by U.S. Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., to allow the Corps to move forward on obtaining a 12-foot channel for the navigation system.

"They know the ins and the outs of the political spectrum in D.C. better than anybody," said Shell, who also is president of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Port Operators Association. "I'm very, very pleased with their efforts."

Business on 06/21/2018

Print Headline: D.C. lobbyist to promote river system

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