Transcript of News Tele-Conference with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to Announce $45 Million in Stimulus Funds to Rehabilitate Flood Control Systems in 11 States
Washington, D.C.-April 6, 2009 | USDA Newsroom
MODERATOR: Now it's my pleasure to introduce Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: Larry [Quinn], thank you so much. And thanks to everyone who is on the call today. Today I'm pleased to announce $45 million in resources from the Reinvestment and Recovery Act--the Stimulus funding--for 27 watershed rehabilitation projects that are located in 11 states across the country. These projects, we believe, will help to revitalize rural economies by creating jobs and supporting local businesses that produce products and services that are part of these projects. Many dams and other important flood control structures across the country are in a race against time when it comes to their ability to protect people and property from flooding. This funding is going to projects to avoid the risk of infrastructure failure and the threat that would represent to life and property.
I think this is exactly what President Obama had in mind when he said that we will use funding from the Recovery Act to, and I quote, "begin making the immediate investments necessary to put people back to work doing the work America needs done," end quote.
This assistance will be delivered by the USDA Natural Resource[s] Conservation Service. I'm joined today by Dave White, who is the Director of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, through our Watershed Rehabilitation Program. The state and local sponsors will be providing up to 35 percent of the funding for these projects.
Let me take a few minutes just to touch on several of the projects.
A project in Fairfax, Virginia, encompassing the rehabilitation of two flood control structures at a cost of $6.2 million. The Recovery Act proceeds will be $4 million, and local funds will provide the balance. The dams will be upgraded to current safety standards, and will continue to provide protection for the nearly estimated 112,000 vehicles that use four major roads downstream from the structure on a daily basis, as well as providing protection for a number of railroads where the daily average ridership is approximately 9,000 individuals. Also, five utilities will also be protected by these resources. The total value of residential property below the dam is estimated at $57 million.
A project in Adair County, Oklahoma, a $6.1 million project, where the Recovery Act will provide $4 million with the local funds providing the balance of $2.1 [million]. This project is going to provide and to protect the water supply to the city of Stilwell, Oklahoma, as well as a rural water district. The local school district that will be served by this project is 94 percent Native American and has a poverty rate of 21 percent. This is an important project in that area.
Two projects in Worcester, Massachusetts; two flood control structures, about a $5.3 million project; again, the Recovery Act providing about $3.5 million with local funds providing the balance. This is designed to provide some protection from flood damage to 200 homes and businesses that are serviced by 24 bridges that are involved in this project, and over 2,000 residents will benefit as a result of our work here.
Opportunities in Georgia, as well, to partner with the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission on watershed rehabilitation projects in Georgia. The state of Georgia is offering up $3 million as leverage for $6 million in the Recovery Act funding. We anticipate that as many as 168 jobs will be created, safeguarding 216 lives in small communities throughout the state and providing an estimated boost of over $14 million to the Georgia economy.
We also have projects in Arkansas, a small project, a $2 million project providing protection for water supply for the 80 residents of Waldron, Arkansas, as well as providing flood protection to the town and portion of U.S. Highway 17.
In addition to those states, there are projects in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Texas and West Virginia, a total of approximately $45 million in projects.
This is part of the $28 billion that the USDA received in the form of stimulus money, $20 billion of which is being provided for food assistance, and the balance for infrastructure, rural development, and broadband expansion. And we are rapidly trying to put these resources to work so that we protect people and put folks back to work in rural communities across the country.
With that, Larry, I'd be happy to answer questions. And if there are technical questions, I may ask Dave to weigh in.
MODERATOR: Reporters, as we prepare to receive your questions, please let us know that you have one by pressing *1 on your telephone touchpad to indicate that you'd like to do that. We're waiting for that first question. Soon as we get a question, sir, we'll bring them up for you.
And our first question today comes from Ken Thomas at Associated Press. Ken, go ahead.
REPORTER: Hi. North Dakota has obviously been dealing with incredible flooding. Do you know whether the state sought any of the funding and whether the state may receive funding in the future?
SEC. VILSACK: Ken, we are—I spoke with the governor of North Dakota last week. Staff has been working over the weekend to identify specific issues relative to North Dakota. I will say that in terms of USDA assistance to North Dakota, our primary focus at this point is making sure that people in flood-prone areas and flood-impacted areas are able to receive adequate nourishment, adequate food supplies, working with local food banks to make sure there is a sufficient amount of food. We're also working with a number of folks in the community to make sure that animals and livestock are protected.
The bulk of our work, however, will take place after floodwaters recede, and we're able to accurately impact the assessment of the damage that has taken place to livestock operations, to farms, and to communities.
At that point, USDA will be in a position to weigh in with a number of programs. This may be one of them. There may be Rural Development resources that could come to play. There may be additional opportunities for disaster assistance through the normal channels.
So we are very cognizant of the concerns that have been expressed in North Dakota, and we are making sure that we are up to date. Daily briefings are taking place within the Department, and we are looking forward to working with folks in North Dakota to get them back on their feet.
I will also say that we have, because of the situation in North Dakota, extended the flood plains sign-up by two weeks to give people additional opportunity to participate in some of the programs that are being provided by the Stimulus package as well as the more traditional USDA programs.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes from John Runyan of Mid-America Ag Network. Standing by should be Ron Hays. John, go ahead, please.
REPORTER: Yes. Secretary Vilsack, you mentioned Kansas and Nebraska as part of that $28 billion Stimulus Bill—Plan, I should say. What specific projects are in Kansas and Nebraska? Do you know?
SEC. VILSACK: Well, there's the Switzler Creek project, which takes about $1.1 million of funding, and in Nebraska--I may not pronounce this properly--but Papio W3 is another $1.1 million project. Those resources will be matched 35 percent by the state and local folks, so you're talking about somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.5 million in each of those two states.
And these projects, I might say, were the beginning of a process in which we are trying to address those situations and occurrences which pose, in our view, the greatest possible risk at some point in time in the future. So we're trying to minimize risk with these projects.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Ron Hays of Radio Oklahoma Network. And standing by should be Julie Harker. Ron, go ahead, please.
REPORTER: Yes, Mr. Secretary. Thank you for having us call. And I was curious if you or if Chief White might be able to walk us through exactly how you have gone about selecting these particular projects. In other words, what are the criteria to qualify for the dollars?
SEC. VILSACK: I'll have Dave White weigh in on that.
NRCS CHIEF DAVE WHITE: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Greetings. What we did was, we have several--as you know, being from Oklahoma, there's several hundred in Oklahoma; we have thousands across the nation. Many of these dams are reaching the end of their useful life, and what we're often seeing is when that happens the materials that are used to construct, oh, the principal spillway system, the pool drain--they are subject to weathering, the chemical reactions, concrete risers, conduits, they can all deteriorate and crack. Metal components will rust and corrode. And what we do is, we try to go back in and repair those. We also have the situation where development has occurred downstream, and it has changed the classification from like a low hazard to a high hazard. And we have to go in and upgrade the dams' current safety conditions.
So these particular ones that are on this $45 million list, really takes care of all the construction projects that we had pretty much construction-ready and could meet the timeframes, and it takes care of a lot of the backlog.
We basically used a two-tier, risk-based system. One is the condition of the dam, and the second would be: what are the consequences if that dam failed? And that was the criteria we essentially used to come up with this list.
SEC. VILSACK: One of the benefits, if I might add, Dave, to USDA's involvement with the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is the fact that we are using to a large extent existing programs to funnel these resources. So we were able to address backlogged circumstances, not just in this program but also in our Direct Loan Single Family Home Loan Program and our Guaranteed Loan Program. We're also certainly have had a lot of Rural Development projects that have been identified, that we are in a process of trying to fund, that would not otherwise have been funded if we hadn't received these stimulus monies.
MODERATOR: Next question comes from Julie Harker of Brownfield Network. And standing by should be Lee Logan. Julie, go ahead, please.
REPORTER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary and Mr. White. I'm curious to know what the project is in Missouri. And also, as you both know, there's a big issue about the planned spring rises on the Missouri River that would affect a lot of farmers in Missouri. If you could speak to that, our governor says we do have a lot of levees that are still unrepaired in Missouri. And as you know, we've had a history of flooding in recent years.
SEC. VILSACK: Well, this is the Lost Creek B-2 location. It's a relatively small program, but a significant hazard. It is currently noncompliant according to NRCS and the state of Missouri. It's approximately $400,000 of federal resource and $215,000 of local resource, and it's really one of five projects in the general area that need to be addressed.
As it relates to the spring rise issue, that is a very complicated issue involving multiple states. You know, it involves not just Missouri but also Nebraska and Iowa and the Dakotas and Minnesota have something to say about all of that. And it is, as you know, a constant balance between those who are concerned about the environmental impacts and effects on birds and other animals and the impact it has on farmers downstream and the capacity to make sure that we have adequate navigable waters so that commercial enterprises can take advantage of the Missouri.
So it's a complicated issue, and I know that states have been working on this and have attempted to try to reach some degree of consensus on it.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Lee Logan of Associated Press in Missouri. And he'll be followed by Mark Beardsley. Lee, go ahead.
REPORTER: Hi, Secretary. I was actually going to ask about the Missouri projects as well. That's the only one there at Lost Creek. Are there any along the Mississippi River, perhaps?
SEC. VILSACK: This is the only one that's being announced with these resources in Missouri.
MODERATOR: Mark Beardsley is next, Main Street Newspaper. Mark, go ahead with your question.
REPORTER: Thank you for taking my call. I'm calling in regard to three relatively minor watershed rehabilitation projects in Jackson County, Georgia, and three in Madison County. Can you direct me to some sites where I might be able to find a more clear description of the location of the projects and the costs of those projects?
SEC. VILSACK: I'll have Dave White respond to that.
CHIEF WHITE: Yes, sir. We can send you the information. We can have, let me give you the website where our stuff is. We do have a Recovery Act website, and we can also send you all the briefing sheets for these Georgia projects. WWW.NRCS.USDA.GOV .
The Georgia projects are quite interesting, by the way. There's going to be a lot of roller-compacted concrete spillways put on those dams to upgrade them to high hazard condition.
SEC. VILSACK: Now, Dave, just to make sure that we got that address correct: It's at NRCS.USDA.GOV. What is it again?
MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Alison Winter who is with Environment and Energy Daily. And standing by should be David Bennett. Go ahead, Alison.
REPORTER: Hi. Thanks for taking my question. Forgive me if you said this and I missed it, but prior to these stimulus projects when was the last time that projects like this were funded, and what was the level before?
SEC. VILSACK: That would have been before my time, so Dave, as a career-person at NRCS maybe you'd have some idea.
CHIEF WHITE: This really, we were funded on this in the 2002 Farm Bill, and I think that Farm Bill provided, oh golly, it's going back a ways. I think it provided like $150 million in mandatory funds. Those were never appropriated, but Congress did use discretionary funds. I don't know the exact total, but it has been funded over the past several years.
Mr. Lucas from Oklahoma was the primary person who is the sponsor of this Act. And again in the '08 Farm Bill we were able to--Congress put some mandatory funding in there.
This is the first funding since the Farm Bill was passed. It was not in the Farm Bill, of course; it was in the Recovery Act. We do have some FY '09 appropriations from the Omnibus Bill, and this is going to provide us funds to continue to work or initiate the planning design on about 55 additional projects in 2009.
Plus, in 2009 we want to undertake some assessments where we can look at the condition of several hundred of the additional high hazard dams.
SEC. VILSACK: One of the great things about the Stimulus package is, it does give us an opportunity to sort of recast the spotlight on some of the infrastructure needs of the country. And certainly there are significant needs in this area as well as in the broadband area which the Stimulus Package also addresses.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes from David Bennett of Farm Press. And standing by should be Merritt Melancon. David, go ahead.
REPORTER: Thanks for taking my question. I am curious about the Yazoo Backwater Project in Mississippi, and if that was considered for funding.
SEC. VILSACK: It's not on the list of the projects that have been approved. It may very well be on a list of additional projects to look at. Dave, I don't know if you are familiar with it.
CHIEF WHITE: Well, I'd have to check, Mr. Secretary. But I don't think that was a rehabilitation project. I think that was a normal watershed operations project. And it's certainly not on the rehabilitation list.
MODERATOR: Next question is from Merritt Melancon of the Athens Banner-Herald. Go ahead, Merritt.
REPORTER: Hi. You said earlier that these projects were chosen because they were shovel-ready. I was wondering what the engineering and planning time would be before construction could start on these projects. And how many jobs do you project will be created, nationwide and in Georgia, if you have that broken down.
SEC. VILSACK: Dave, do you want to take the question about timing in terms of how long it will take?
CHIEF WHITE: The timing is going to vary on these. Some of these are going to start really quick, and some are going to have to require a longer bid process planning process. The RA funds--the Recovery Act funds--do have a timeframe. I think it's September 2010, so we should be substantially complete by that period of time.
But now the start dates, we're going to see some over the next couple of months start up. Others will take longer, as the final plans are done. But we felt these could all meet the timeframe set by the Recovery Act.
SEC. VILSACK: In terms of jobs, specifically in Georgia we anticipate about 168 direct jobs resulting form this particular investment in Georgia. I don't have the job numbers in terms of individual states, but we believe it will be close to 1,000 jobs in terms of the total impact of this announcement. So about 1,000 jobs.
CHIEF WHITE: If I could, part of the reason is: this is not 100 percent federal funded. We are capped by law at 65 percent. So the local sponsors have to come up with about 35 percent of the funds. It can be in-kind, it could be direct cash. Local sponsors are also responsible not just for that cost share but also for the permits like 404 if it's needed. They are responsible for land rights.
These projects we thought were far enough along that all those things could be done, but the actual construction of each one will occur at different times.
MODERATOR: And our final question today comes from Kate Nasees (sp). Kate?
REPORTER: About that 35 percent from the state and local partners, do you know if any public/private partnerships are going to be involved in funding these at all, or if it's all coming from government funds?
CHIEF WHITE: We are working with the existent sponsors. Every watershed project has a local sponsor, and they will agree to do the operation and maintenance of these projects and the upkeep, things like that. So those sponsors are already on record, whether it's the Georgia Soil and Water Commission, or whomever it would be. So there's not going to be any new public/private sponsorships created. We are going to work with the ones who were with us from the beginning on these projects.
MODERATOR: And I do see a few more questions have popped up here. Mike Orlando from KTIV, would you go ahead with your question? Mike?
REPORTER: Yes. Sure. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I was wondering, these funds, do they in any way influence Northwest Iowa maybe into South Dakota with the Gavins Point Dam, or are there any plans for the flooding—and I apologize if I did miss it earlier—in the rest of Iowa such as Eastern Iowa that was hit so--ravaged by flooding a year ago.
SEC. VILSACK: We have a different pot of money or different resources that are going to Iowa, mostly focused on purchasing flood plain easements to avoid future problems. There aren't specific projects relating to this particular rehabilitation program being announced in Iowa. But I can tell you that there are resources coming from other parts of USDA into Iowa, a substantial amount of money going in Rural Development, a substantial amount of money coming from these easement purchases that will hopefully avoid future problems.
MODERATOR: Stewart Doan from Agri-Pulse has the next question, and standing by should be Sarah Moses. Stewart?
REPORTER: Thank you, Larry. And good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. The first members of your subcabinet were confirmed this past Thursday. Any comment on that and your expectations for how these individuals will help you or assist you and the President in their respective mission areas?
SEC. VILSACK: Well, thank you for asking that question. We had a great ceremony today where Jim Miller was sworn in as [FFAS] Under Secretary, and Joe Leonard was sworn in as the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights. Both of those individuals have plenty of work on their desks. They are in the process of getting the bureaucratic steps out of the way so they can begin working full-time tomorrow.
I can tell you that Jim Miller has got a lot on his plate. We are in the process of trying to make sure that the implementation of the Farm Bill--as it relates to the ACRE program, as it relates to the Disaster assure program that was instituted, the Energy title, the Conservation titles of the Farm Bill--need to be implemented and need to be looked at. And that's certainly one of the priority items that we've given to Jim.
Joe Leonard is going to be working, as we all are and have been, on making sure that we can do a better job of dealing with issues involving civil rights in this Department. As you may know, there have been a number of lawsuits in the past directed at the Department, and we're in the process of trying to figure out ways in which we can prevent those kinds of problems from occurring in the future and try to figure out creative ways to deal with ongoing investigations and reports and lawsuits. So Joe Leonard also has his hands full, and we're anxious to have the rest of our team put on board as quickly as possible.
The Deputy Secretary, Kathleen Merrigan, should begin work next week, and I will tell you that will certainly be helpful because we can share the workload a little bit that the Secretary's Office has in all the mission areas. And then we hope that over the course of the next couple of weeks to a month that we get the rest of our folks at least to the point where the Senate can confirm them.
MODERATOR: And our final question comes from Sarah Moses with the Cumberland Times Mirror. Go ahead.
REPORTER: Hi. You had mentioned that there were some projects in West Virginia, and I was curious if you could give the details of those projects?
SEC. VILSACK: The project in West Virginia is along the Potomac-New Creek-Whites. It's a $4 million investment by the federal government, which would mean that it's probably a $6 million project. It helps to supply the water supply for the city of Keyser, about 6,000 folks, and should create about 16 jobs in terms of installing a new intake riser, lining the principal spillway pipe, installing an impact basin, and some embankment surface drainage system work, and should allow that system to be extended in terms of its life for another 50 years.
MODERATOR: Thank you, reporters, for your questions today.
Any final thoughts, Mr. Secretary?
SEC. VILSACK: Well, this is, again, consistent with the President's charge to USDA to try to get these resources to putting Americans back to work as quickly as possible as well as doing the work that America needs done. Whether it's increasing the SNAP benefits so folks have a little extra money to go to the grocery store, or increasing our broadband access to unserved areas, or in this case improving the safety against floods and securing water supplies for communities both large and small, USDA is in a sense an 'every day and every way' Department. This is just another example of that rather broad mission that we have.
MODERATOR: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
I'm Larry Quinn bidding you a good afternoon from Washington.