Federal Water Tap, November 19: Water Infrastructure Financing Bills in the Senate

Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, introduced legislation that would set up a federal water infrastructure financing program modeled after a program that provides low-interest loans for transportation projects.The Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) would give priority to water and wastewater projects of national or regional significance, covering a gap in existing federal grant programs, which target smaller projects.

Merkley’s press secretary told Circle of Blue that the amount of funding for the bill is still being discussed, but it would likely be similar to the $US 500 million over 5 years in the Water Resources Development Act for a pilot WIFIA project (see below). Because the loans will be repaid, only the portion at risk for default is considered a federal expenditure.

Water Resources Development Act
At a Senate hearing Thursday, California Democrat Barbara Boxer introduced a draft version of the Water Resources Development Act, the legislation that sets priorities for water projects overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Superstorm Sandy influenced the bill. There is a section on restoring coastal ecosystems in the northeast to protect against storm surges and a new section directing the corps and the National Academy of Sciences to study water management in response to flood and drought.

There is also a section granting the corps and the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to carry out 10 pilot projects to test the financing model Merkley proposes in his WIFIA bill.

Boxer is determined to get the water resources bill through Congress in the lame-duck session. “Let’s get this done,” she said during the hearing.

Her Republican colleague, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, agreed. “We’re not just talking about it,” he said. “We’re going to do it.” That, of course, depends on the full Senate.

Conflicting Interests on the Nation’s Biggest Water System
On a conference call Thursday, an Army Corps of Engineers representative reiterated that the corps, obeying operating protocol, would reduce the amount of water it releases from Missouri River reservoirs, despite concerns from those downstream along the Mississippi River who claim that the water is needed to keep shipping channels open.

Starting November 23, the corps will reduce by two-thirds the volume of water released from Gavins Point dam, the lowermost dam on the Missouri River. Reuters reports that the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois may become too shallow for most commercial traffic.

Flood the Canyons
The Bureau of Reclamation began releasing large volumes of water from Glen Canyon Dam to simulate flood flows on the Colorado River. The high flows will last a week, the Arizona Daily Sun reports.

Water Rights for Snowmaking
On Thursday a U.S. district judge heard arguments in a lawsuit brought by the U.S. ski industry over a rule the Forest Service introduced last year that would compel ski resorts operating on federal land to cede some water rights to the federal government, the Denver Post reports.

Wheat Yields Doing Well
Despite the drought, it will be a banner year for wheat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that yields for all varieties of wheat will equal the record of 46.3 bushels per acre from 2010. Conditions for winter wheat, which is planted in the fall, vary by region — the southern plains states are worst off — and as a whole the crop is not developing as well as last year’s. Other wheat data can be found in the department’s monthly wheat outlook.

Food Security Grant
It’s brother helping brother. NASA awarded a $US 3.5 million grant to the U.S. Geological Survey to use satellite measurements to study global crop production and water use.

Mining in Alaska
The EPA has released the peer-reviewed final draft of how large-scale mining would affect Bristol Bay, one of the world’s most fertile salmon habitats. Comments from the reviewers are included.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.

Author: Brett Walton  is a Seattle-based reporter for Circle of Blue. He writes our Federal Water Tap, a weekly breakdown of U.S. policy. Interests: Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Pricing, Infrastructure.

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