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House OKs water act authorizing spending on Savannah Harbor deepening project

The state is providing $266 million of the $706 million price tag for the project

U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, said Tuesday he hopes the Senate will quickly follow the House’s lead in approving the Water Resources Reform and Development Act that will authorize the $706 million funding level for the Savannah Harbor deepening project. (File photo)

U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, said Tuesday he hopes the Senate will quickly follow the House’s lead in approving the Water Resources Reform and Development Act that will authorize the $706 million funding level for the Savannah Harbor deepening project. (File photo)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House overwhelmingly passed a conference report Tuesday that will provide for improvements to the rivers and harbors, conservation measures and development of water and related resources. The act authorizes the additional funding needed for the $706 million deepening of the Savannah Harbor, a project seen as critical to Georgia’s economy.

The state of Georgia’s share of the price tag for the project is $266 million, money the Georgia Legislature has already earmarked for it.

The Senate also must sign off on the report, which was ironed out last week by House and Senate conferees, for the Water Resources Reform and Development Act to be forwarded to President Obama for his signature. The House passed the legislation by a 412-4 vote, with 15 representatives not voting.

U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, noted that the legislation includes a key provision authorizing the funding necessary for the continued work on the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. That would end a 14-year delay of the project to deepen the harbor from 42 to 47 feet so that it can accommodate the new supertankers that will soon be coming from the expanded Panama Canal.

The expansion of the harbor will ensure it remains a vital piece of the national infrastructure and have a major economic impact on Georgia and the nation, Scott said.

“I applaud the House for passing the conference report to the Water Resources Reform and Development Act,” Scott said. “This legislation is important for Georgia and for the Port of Savannah, which plays a crucial role in our agriculture and manufacturing industries. I encourage the Senate to act on this conference report so we can create jobs, improve our nation’s water infrastructure, and increase America’s competitiveness in the global marketplace.”

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U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, said the conference report allows the Corps of Engineers to enter an agreement with the state of Georgia to accelerate the Savannah Port project. (File photo)

U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, said the legislation enables the Corps of Engineers to accelerate the schedule through an agreement with Georgia.

“In addition to improving access to vital waterways, WRRDA will create jobs and boost our economy by opening access to vital infrastructure projects across the country,” Bishop said. “Dredging of the Savannah River is long overdue, and now that the WRRDA conference port has passed through the House of Representatives, the Savannah Port is one step closer to being the major driver of statewide economic development that we have been working towards!”

Bishop added that the conference report also has bipartisan-sponsored language concerning the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River System and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River Systems, urging the governors of Georgia, Florida, and Alabama to reach an agreement on an interstate waters compact as soon as possible. Congress is pledging its assistance to the states to ensure prompt consideration and approval of an agreement, Bishop said.

In addition to Bishop and Scott, the rest of Georgia's House delegation that voted supported the approval of the conference report. Reps. Paul Broun, R-Athens, and Hank Johnson, D-Atlanta, did not vote.

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U.S. Sen. Johnny Iskason, R-Marietta, called on his fellow senators to move quickly to approve the water act conference report. (File photo)

U.S. Sen. Johnnny Isakson, R-Marietta, called for the Senate to quickly pass the conference report as well. The Upper Chamber is expected to take up the report later this week.

“Thanks to the Water Resources (Reform and) Development Act authorization, a $706 million project in my state for the southeastern United States will become the reality over the next five years,” said Isakson during remarks on the Senate floor. “As we deepen the Savannah River and the Savannah Harbor, and as we improve that port, we are improving the opportunity for the entire southeastern United States to grow and prosper and be competitive in the 21st century.

“The Port of Savannah directly contributes to 297,000 jobs in our state. … It provides jobs, economic vitality, tax revenues and prosperity for America. Its time has come,”

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Gov. Nathan Deal, shown speaking March 19 at a rural caucus meeting, said Tuesday that Georgia is ready to move ahead with its $266 million portion of the overall $706 million Savannah Harbor deepening project. (Special photo)

Gov. Nathan Deal hailed passage of the act as a “critical victory” in the effort to deepen the Savannah Harbor, which he said was Georgia’s No. 1 economic development project.

“This landmark legislation will update an outdated spending cap that was put on the Savannah Harbor deepening project more than a decade ago, eliminating the last legislative hurdle and allowing us to use the money we have set aside to begin construction,” said Deal, who had tried to move forward with the project with the state of Georgia’s contribution. That effort was stopped by the Corps of Engineers, which would not authorize the work without the spending increase included in the pending legislation.

“With the understanding that we’ll have a federal-state split on funding, Georgia has lived up to its promises,” the governor noted. “We’ve now put aside $266 million — the total state share. This project is vitally important for economic development and job creation not only in the Southeast, but nationally as well. In fact, our nation will begin to receive a 5-to-1 return on investment once this is completed.”

Deal applauded the state’s federal lawmakers for working to get the legislation approved.

“Georgia and its congressional delegation have worked diligently and patiently to see this project through to fruition, a project that the Obama administration has recognized as important on several occasions,” Deal said. “It was just last year that Vice President (Joe) Biden stood dockside at the Port of Savannah and told Georgians we would get this project done ‘come hell or high water.’

“We have been in regulatory purgatory for far too long, but today we have made significant headway. I am grateful to my former colleagues in Congress for doing their part to ensure Georgia is ready as the Panama Canal is enlarged. This has been a long time coming — simply put, it’s time to move dirt.”