October 19, 2014

Water levels will remain high on the Missouri River to prep for ’15

Gavins Point Dam

Gavins Point Dam

The Missouri River will see continued high levels over the coming weeks as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prepares for next year by maintaining above-normal releases from Gavins Point Dam.

Jody Farhat, chief of the Missouri River Basin Water Management Division in Omaha, says maintaining the increased releases now will help lower the risk of flooding next season.

“We’ve had a fairly high runoff into the reservoirs for most of the summer, really peaking in August when we had our second wettest August on record,” Farhat says. “As a result, we’ve increased the releases out of Gavins Point with the goal of evacuating all the water that’s stored in the flood control pools by the start of next year’s runoff season.”

Along with flood control, Farhat says excess water will extend the navigation season.

“The higher releases that we have now will provide an additional three or four feet in the river, which will help navigation here in this latter part of this season,” Farhat says. “We are also providing an extension of the navigation service, an additional ten days, so it’ll end on December 10th at the mouth near St. Louis.”

She says it will also mean an increase in hydropower generation.

Farhat says the Corps is holding public meetings on October 28th in Pierre, South Dakota, and on October 29th in Council Bluffs for people who are interested in the water management operations.

By Jerry Oster, WNAX, Yankton


County leaders struggle to keep bridges passable as harvest begins

Corn combineMany Nebraska counties face the dilemma of having to repair or replace dozens of crumbling rural bridges, especially as farmers ramp up traffic during the harvest.

The Nebraska Legislature’s Transportation Committee is hearing testimony on an interim study of the problem.

Saunders County Highway Superintendent Steve Mika says his county has more than 400 bridges and more than 100 of them had to be closed following new bridge inspection rules issued in 2008.

“Average cost of these bridges are $300-350,000 a piece,” Mika says. “Most of these bridges in the past were being replaced or repaired, the majority of it was by local funds. We also have several bridges that are below the sufficiency rating are in place to be replaced.”

Mika says the county has slowly been able to replace bridges, but still has 19 of them closed on major county roads, and about a dozen on minimum-maintenance roads. In some cases, he says bridges can be replaced with large box culverts.

“Getting around these roads for harvest or planting, that’s a real challenge in trying to keep these bridges open,” Mika says. “Even the ones that are open are low tonnage and need to be replaced or upgraded in order to accommodate the farm equipment.”

Larry Dix, executive director for the Nebraska Association of County Officials, says counties are doing as much as they can to keep bridges and roads open, at a time when public sentiment against higher property taxes is growing.

Dix says Saunders County leaders, in particular, are in a tough spot. If Saunders County officials said there are 10 bridges that need to be replaced, each costing $300,000, and if they voted to increase the tax rate 10 cents, “we would immediately have recall petitions out,” Dix says.

Jay Rempe, a vice president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, says there’s no easy answer. He said having a good infrastructure is critical for the state’s agriculture industry. Rempe says the Farm Bureau continues to hear from members about bridges being closed and the difficulty they pose.

“Those that have been closed, those that the weight limits have been reduced, farm equipment is getting bigger, wider, heavier,” Rempe says. “More and more trucks are running on those roads. Farmers have invested in trucks. We have a lot more grain moving because of our ethanol industry and others by trucks and those county bridges come more and more into play.”

One engineering consultant for several counties estimates the cost to replace or upgrade all substandard bridges in Nebraska could exceed $2-billion.

By Doug Kennedy, KWBE, Beatrice



Nation’s ag boss blasts rail lines for not anticipating bumper harvest

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack

The nation’s top agriculture official is raising alarms about the looming shortage of rail cars to carry grain from Midwestern fields to market.

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack says railroad officials should have anticipated the coming bumper harvest and been ready with sufficient cars for delivery.

Vilsack says, “The reality is that we’re behind, the rail industry is behind, and they need to catch up.”

Two of the biggest railroads claim they’re investing in more staff and equipment, but Vilsack says, the moves aren’t coming quickly enough as farmers are already beginning to harvest crops.

“The National Surface Transportation Board has received comments from USDA in a letter that was recently sent on behalf of farmers encouraging them to continue putting pressure on the Burlington Northern and Canadian Pacific rail lines to ensure they have adequate number of cars, adequate number of locomotives, more personnel and continue to improve track.”

Vilsack says railroads should be penalized for poor service and they shouldn’t be allowed to increase their freight rates when there’s a backlog and bumper crops.

“There may be some opportunities for the National Surface Transportation Board to change their system so that rail companies are not rewarded for substandard service,” Vilsack says. “It doesn’t seem to me that they ought to be able to charge extra when there’s a backlog and a large harvest. They ought to be anticipating that.”

Vilsack says another possible solution includes the use of arbitration.

Vilsack says, “We’ve also suggested that there might be additional ways in which decisions concerning whether or not they’ve stepped up adequately can be put into a mediation or arbitration system that might be less time-consuming and less expensive for producers.”

Legislation is being introduced in the U.S. Senate to address the problem, while lawmakers from South Dakota and Minnesota are calling on the USDA to conduct an economic analysis of rail service challenges facing agricultural shippers.

Crude oil production is bounding in the U-S. Five years ago, rail cars hauled 11,000 loads of crude oil, while last year, it was 400,000 rail car loads of crude.

Supporters of the stalled Keystone XL oil pipeline say if the project were greenlighted, it could be carrying huge quantities of crude, freeing up more trains to haul grain.


Transportation Secretary sees no quick solution to rail car shortage

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx can’t promise any solution this fall to a rail car shortage threatening harvest season.

Farmers need rail cars to move crops, but rail has been diverted to hauling oil from the Bakken oil fields in Montana and North Dakota.

“I don’t think the trend is going to change abruptly any time soon,” Foxx replied when asked about the problem during his recent visit to Lincoln.

Foxx says Washington is aware of the problem.

“Our surface transportation board, along with our rail companies, and along with us in Washington; we’re going to have to figure out a way to create more capacity so the commodities can move,” according to Foxx.

Many in agriculture reject that notion, blaming the problem not on a lack of rail transportation, but on the delay in approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would carry Bakken oil and free rail cars to move crops.

President Barack Obama has yet to decide whether to grant TransCanada’s request for a presidential permit to cross the Canadian border and build the northern portion of the oil pipeline, connecting it with the southern portion, already operating from Cushing, OK to refineries along the Gulf Coast in Texas.

Transportation Secretary touts Grow America Act during Nebraska visit

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx touted the Grow America Act during a stop in Nebraska.

The act is a proposal by the Obama Administration to spend $302 billion over the next four years to shore up the transportation trust fund and provide money for other transportation projects.

Foxx, during a tour of the Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing plant in Lincoln, claimed approval of the act would be an investment in Nebraska.

“It’s also a matter of job creation,” Foxx told reporters. “We have 1,600 people here, about 400-plus who focus on train construction here in this Lincoln plant. And they’re affecting transit systems in Washington, D. C. and the New York area.”

The Kawasaki factory manufactures light rail cars. It spans more than a million square feet in Lincoln, growing over the years and adding to employment.

Foxx said the benefits of encouraging light rail in America extend well beyond the country’s urban areas.

“It is just not true that when you invest in transit you’re just investing in urban places,” according to Foxx. “You’re investing in the people right here in Lincoln, Nebraska.”

Jane Monnich, KLIN, contributed to this report.