Water Infrastructure Bill Offers a Kumbaya Moment on Capitol Hill

Workers open the gates of the Bonnet Carre spillway in Norco, La., Thursday, March 8, 2018.

Workers open the gates of the Bonnet Carre spillway in Norco, La., Thursday, March 8, 2018. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert


Connecting state and local government leaders

“There’s a lot to like about this legislation,” said Sen. Tom Carper, top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

WASHINGTON — Local government groups, public works organizations and others are throwing their support behind a bipartisan water infrastructure bill taking shape in the U.S. Senate.

“America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018” is the latest Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, authorization—legislation that commonly comes up on a biennial basis in Congress.

The legislation is not a spending bill. And it does not include the sweeping proposals to rework infrastructure permitting and grants the Trump administration proposed earlier this year.

But it does set policy guidelines for a range of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects and activities, as well as other programs that have to do with infrastructure like dams, harbors, levees and inland waterways, as well as environmental restoration projects.

The water infrastructure bill was introduced on Tuesday by Republican and Democratic leaders on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

On Wednesday, the panel held a hearing to discuss the legislation.

“This is something that this committee has a long history of doing every two years,” Environment and Public Works chairman John Barrasso, of Wyoming, told reporters.

“We’re going to get something done and get it to the president,” he added.

Barrasso said the committee’s plan is to hold a markup hearing for the bill later this month.  

Tom Carper, of Delaware, is the top Democrat on the panel.

“We’ve reached out,” he said, “on the Republican side and the Democratic side to our members to say: ‘What, from your states’ interests, what do you need to include in this kind of legislation?’”

“Almost every state has a stake in this,” Carper added. “There’s a lot to like about this legislation.”

Currently, the Army Corps faces a construction project backlog estimated to be somewhere around $96 billion—over 10 times the size of its annual budget, which is close to $7 billion in this fiscal year.

After referencing the $96 billion backlog figure at a hearing in January, Lt. General Todd T. Semonite, chief of engineers and commanding general for the Corps, said: "This country can’t afford that." 

"We have to find innovative ways of having some of the stakeholders put some skin in the game," he added.

Local government groups that have endorsed the Senate legislation include the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Four organizations that represent utilities and others involved in waterworks also offered support for the legislation, specifically applauding its reauthorization of a low-cost lending program known as the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or WIFIA.

Carper during the hearing listed other groups, including conservation organizations, that had given the bill their blessing.

Part of the legislation would authorize (but would not appropriate) about $2.4 billion of federal funding for six projects involving waterway navigation, hurricane and storm risk management and flood control.

Two of the projects are located in Florida, two in Texas, one in Hawaii and one in New York.

The most expensive, with a $3.3 billion total price tag and a $2.1 billion federal share, is aimed at reducing the risk from tropical storm surges in three counties south and east of Houston on Texas’ Gulf Coast. It would incorporate a nearly 27 mile levee and floodwall system.

About $7 billion of project “deauthorizations” are also identified—a move lawmakers characterized as a taxpayer savings.

The 202-page bill is loaded up with provisions that go beyond project authorizations. Many are in the weeds of federal water policy, but also have relevance for state and local governments.

For instance, the legislation outlines a framework for reimbursing, or crediting, non-federal agencies sharing project costs with the Army Corps when a project comes in under budget.

The bill would also require that when the Corps conducts “feasibility studies” for projects to manage flood or storm risks that it has to consider both “traditional” options (like floodwalls and levees) and “natural” alternatives (like restoring or maintaining wetlands).

Another section would establish an appeals board for water storage projects going through permitting processes, giving state or local agencies new power to engage with and challenge the Army Corps when seeking approvals for projects like reservoirs.

There’s also language meant to give local governments greater flexibility meeting certain federal stormwater and wastewater management requirements. And to establish a “municipal ombudsman” office in the Environmental Protection Agency to provide related technical assistance.

Barrasso indicated after the hearing that the committee could add to the bill a piece of bipartisan water and sewer financing legislation that Sens. John Boozman, an Arkansas Republican, and Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, introduced in January.

As Route Fifty has reported, lawmakers and others have described that legislation as a way to combine beneficial parts of two existing financing programs: state revolving funds and WIFIA.

“We’re working on trying to get to that,” Barrasso replied when asked about whether he expected the Boozman-Booker bill would be included in the committee’s final WRDA package.

Neither Barrasso or Carper voiced interest when questioned about an idea that's been floated by some Republicans in the House to move the Army Corps out of the Defense Department.

"If it isn't broke, don't fix it," Carper said.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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