Soo Locks money, new Great Lakes icebreaker authorized in defense bill

WASHINGTON, DC — An $858 billion national defense bill that President Joe Biden is expected to sign this week contains funding authorizations for a new Great Lakes icebreaker and increased spending on the Soo Locks shipping complex.

The US Senate passed the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on Dec. 15, sending the defense funding and policy bill to Biden’s desk.

The annual bill, which authorizes but does not appropriate defense funding, has received broader attention than usual this year because it ends the military’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate.

As part of expanded US Coast Guard authorizations, the bill allows for $350 million to build new heavy Great Lakes icebreaker like the cutter Mackinaw which is stationed in Cheboygan. It also requires new reporting on the economic impact of vessel delays on the lakes caused by ice.

Great Lakes shipping interests have long been advocated for another heavy icebreaker despite historical data showing that total ice cover is on the long-term decline.

Icebreaking began on Lake Superior last week.

The NDAA also authorizes $3.2 billion toward ongoing reconstruction at the Soo Locks shipping complex. That roughly triples the amount previously authorized for the infrastructure project after inflation and increasing costs of labor and materials ballooned cost estimates this year.

Over the next six years, the US Army Corps of Engineers is reconfiguring the inactive Davis and Sabin locks into a single large chamber similar to the existing Poe Lock, which is the only lock big enough to move the largest Great Lakes ships.

A second Poe-sized lock will ensure that ore from the Minnesota iron range could still reach steel mills on the lower Great Lakes should the lock unexpectedly close.

Over the past two years, the Army Corps has been deepening approach channels leading into the new lock chamber and reinforcing existing channel walls. The third construction phase, which involves demolishing the Sabin Lock and building the new lock chamber itself, is scheduled to begin this spring.

“This legislation makes essential investments to modernize our water infrastructure, keep our water safe and protect the Great Lakes for future generations,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who chairs the Senate homeland security and government affairs committee.

The Soo Locks authorization was part of the Water Resources and Development Act (WRDA), a biennial infrastructure bill folded into the 2023 defense bill.

Included in the WRDA portion was a provision to increase the federal government’s share of a reconstruction at the Brandon Road Lock & Dam in Joliet, Ill., to 90 percent.

At Brandon Road, the Army Corps is fortifying the chokepoint dam with a gauntlet of defenses to prevent invasive bighead and silver carp from advancing up the Chicagoland waterway system and into Lake Michigan.

Project advocates say the state of Illinois still needs to sign an agreement with the Army Corps this year in order to keep the project on schedule.

The bill also directs the Army Corps to update an economic impact study of Great Lakes recreational boating.

“Congress again demonstrated its support for improving Great Lakes navigation, protecting against invasive species, and understanding the economic importance of recreation to our region,” said Erika Jensen, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission in Ann Arbor.

Beyond pricey infrastructure projects, the bill also authorizes more funding for the US Coast Guard’s Great Lakes Center of Expertise for Oil Spill Preparedness and Response at Lake Superior State University’s new research campus on the St. Marys River in Sault Ste. Marie.

Additional provisions in the bill allow the Army Corps to provide support to Great Lakes states to prevent future coastal erosion and flooding, and authorizes the Corps to expedite a comprehensive coastal resiliency study of shoreline.

The bill also requires a new annual report on Great Lakes shoreline infrastructure needs.

According to Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s office, the bill increases Michigan’s statewide Environmental Infrastructure Assistance Program authority from $35 million to $85 million and expands its eligibility to support new sewer overflow, storm water, and drinking water projects.

Local projects authorized in the bill include $7.2 million for Cascade Township and $40 million for Macomb County wastewater infrastructure improvements.

The feasibility of improving a turning basin on the Black River in South Haven would also be studied.

Michigan communities hit by flooding in recent years would also receive support. The bill authorizes the Army Corps to work with Metro Detroit communities and Midland County to address flood risks caused by extreme precipitation.

The bill also authorizes the Army Corps to support Grosse Pointe Shores and Grosse Pointe Farms for ecosystem restoration and flood risk identification.

“Michigan knows firsthand how more frequent and more severe weather caused by the climate crisis is taking a toll on our coastal communities and aging infrastructure,” said Stabenow, D-Mich. in a statement last week.

“These investments will address erosion in our coastal areas, prevent damaging flooding in our communities, improve water quality, and stop the spread of invasive carp and other species in our Great Lakes.”

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