One of the major factors in the rise of the United States as a superpower is its navigable waterways and using that system to benefit its people and commerce. Now, the job is keeping the infrastructure up-to-date to maintain that status, said Maj. Gen. John Peabody ’76.
Peabody, who recently retired after 35 years in the Army, spoke to Culver Academies students about the importance of maintaining U.S. transportation infrastructure – specifically, the waterways – during his Global Studies Institute visit Sept. 29. Peabody spent most of his career as a combat engineer. But he spent the past 10 years in the Army Corps of Engineers, including two years as the 36th President of the Mississippi River Commission. His service culminated as the Deputy Commanding General for Civil and Emergency Operations in Washington, D.C.
The United States is uniquely equipped among all nations to move goods and people along its waterways, he explained. It has access to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Mississippi River system covers nearly half the country. Add its temperate climate for growing food and it is understandable how the U.S. rose to power, Peabody said, citing The Accidental Superpower by Peter Zeihan and Flashpoints by George Friedman as good books on the subject.
When Thomas Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase in 1804, it gave the United States the port of New Orleans. This opened a major portion of the country for development, he said. Now over two billion tons of goods are shipped on America’s river system and 90 percent of all cargo in the United States hits water at some point in its journey, he said.
But the infrastructure built in support of that transportation system, including ports, canals, dams, locks, and levies are falling into disrepair. Funding for the Army Corps of Engineers has slowed since the mid-1960s and the inclusion of environmental regulation oversight on water issues has siphoned off a portion of the existing budget, Peabody said.
Some projects now take years to complete. Others are placed on the shelf completely. Meanwhile, other countries are developing their infrastructure to keep up with the changing technology. Canada recently completed deep water ports to handle the newer, larger cargo ships. And China is developing the Yangtze River, which will boost economic development inland.
Meanwhile, the only spike in the Corps of Engineers’ budget came after Hurricane Katrina, Peabody said. That work won a major engineering award, then proved itself when Hurricane Isaac hit. But it points to a strategic problem in the United States, he added. “We are great at paying money for recovery, but we will not pay for prevention.”
And prevention projects do have an impact. Flood control projects along this Mississippi have dramatically reduced the number of acres impacted by flooding through the years. For example, a flood in 1927, considered one of the worst in history, impacted 16.7 million acres. When a similar flood occurred in 2011, that number was reduced to 6.35 million acres, he said.
Some of the work facing the Corps of Engineers is environmentally related. This includes restoring the Florida Everglades and rebuilding the gulf coast shorelines. Whether you believe in climate change or not, he said, the work is needed because the water level in the gulf region is rising an average of an inch per year.