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Washington Water Main, May 10: Water Infrastructure Bill Arrives on Senate Floor

The Senate began voting on Water Resources Development Act amendments this week, while the Obama Administration and several conservation groups pushed back against the bill’s language.

WRDA Water Resources Development Act Army Corps of Engineers Water Law Water Policy
Photo courtesy of Transportation and Infrastructure Committee via Flickr
The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure hosted a roundtable April 10 on the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) with representatives from national waterways associations, and disaster management associations, and conservation programs.

This week, the Senate passed several batches of amendments to the primary legislation guiding water-infrastructure work across the U.S., but many steps remain before the bill’s potential adoption.

The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) authorizes — but does not actually fund — roughly $US 20 billion to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for water-resources projects including flood prevention, river and harbor management, and ecosystem restoration.

Here are highlights of amendments passed, The Hill reported, in votes on Wednesday evening and Thursday:

  • Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (R-Rhode Island): Creates a national endowment to protect and conserve the U.S. ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems. The endowment would be funded by a later bill to avoid any additional expense.
  • Senator Roy Blunt (R-Missouri): Promotes resilient construction techniques to ensure building codes are upgraded to withstand severe storms and tornados.
  • Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alaska): Grants releases from real estate restrictions under the Tennessee Valley Authority Act.
  • Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma): Authorizes water resource and environmental infrastructure funding assistance projects and programs from the Army Corps of Engineers that have been delayed for a substantial period of time.
  • Senator Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas): Two amendments, the first provides work-in-kind credits, the second authorizes the Secretary of the Army to construct various projects for improvements to rivers and harbors.

Work will continue on the bill through next week, and a full Senate vote is expected as soon as Thursday.

Several conservation groups joined the President Barack Obama’s administration this week in raising concerns about one part of WRDA, called the Project Acceleration section. It imposes a fine for any agency that misses a deadline on a WRDA-funded project, American Rivers wrote, and opens channels for dispute resolution that could eventually lead to the President.

“The bill constrains science-based decision making, increases litigation risk, and undermines the integrity of several foundational environmental laws.”

–President Barack Obama
Administration Policy Statement

Proponents say the language will spur the Army Corps to finish projects that have been unnecessarily delayed.

The Obama Administration countered in a policy statement that this version of the bill “constrains science-based decision making, increases litigation risk, and undermines the integrity of several foundational environmental laws.”

American Rivers also argued that this bill does not address the fundamental reason for the Corps’ inefficiency: too many projects with too little money. Instead, it would add another $US 12 billion in projects to the list.

Joining in opposition to the bill’s current version were the presidents of the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the League of Conservation Voters. The three leaders wrote a letter to the San Jose Mercury News, arguing that WRDA fails to address disaster-related flooding risks in any substantial way, and “could actually take us back to the days when the Corps was able to push aside environmental concerns.”

Despite the fact that this year’s WRDA — the first introduced since 2007 — passed unanimously out of committee, it faces an uphill battle to final passage.

Author: Andrew Maddocks   is a Washington, D.C–based correspondent for Circle of Blue. He graduated from DePauw University as a Media Fellow with a B.A. in Conflict Studies. He co-writes The Stream, a daily summary of global water news.

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