Friday, May 17, 2013

The Senate's Water Resources Development Act and the Mississippi River Basin

The U.S. Senate passed its version of the Water Resources Development Act (S. 601) on Wednesday (May 15). Commonly known as "WRDA," the legislation is a huge public works bill that periodically authorizes flood control, navigation, and water resource projects and studies by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  There are numerous bill provisions that impact water resources nationwide, many of which are contentious and have been reported on widely elsewhere (also see here for other examples).  The bill's so-called project "streamlining provisions" are particularly contentious and opposed by many environmental organizations, lawyer groups, and state wetlands and floodplain managers.  In addition to sections of the bill of a more national scope, the Senate-passed measure contains several provisions that directly reference and would impact Mississippi River Basin and Gulf Coast waters.  The more notable include:
  • An amendment included in the bill sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, (D-RI) (passed 67-32) that would affect natural resource protection and restoration in the Gulf Coast by authorizing the creation of a national endowment to support the restoration and protection of oceans, coastal areas and the Great Lakes.
  • An amendment offered by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) (passed) to provide for a multiagency effort to slow the spread of Asian carp in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River basins and tributaries.
  • Sen. Richard Durbin's (along with others) amendment (agreed to by Unanimous Consent), which includes language authorizing the Army Corps of Engineers to carry out a study of the built flood control and navigation infrastructure within the greater Mississippi River Basin.  Called the "Greater Mississippi River Basin Severe Flooding And Drought Management Study," its authorized purpose would be "(1) to improve the coordinated and comprehensive management of water resource projects in the greater Mississippi River Basin relating to severe flooding and drought conditions; and (2) to evaluate the feasibility of any modifications to those water resource projects, consistent with the authorized purposes of those projects, and develop new water resource projects to improve the reliability of navigation and more effectively reduce flood risk."
  • An amendment offered by Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) and passed on a voice vote that would block the Army Corps from imposing fees on states for withdrawing water from certain Missouri River reservoirs.  The Hoeven language specifically states that, "No fee for surplus water shall be charged under a contract for surplus water if the contract is for surplus water stored on the Missouri River." 
Other WRDA amendments passed on the Senate floor and now included in the bill that could significantly influence the way water resources are managed in the Mississippi River Basin (while not mentioning the River Basin by name) include:
  • An amendment sponsored by Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) (passed by Unanimous Consent) that would change WRDA language requiring a Government Accountability Office study on the Army Corps’ water management response to floods, storms, and droughts so that it includes an evaluation of the reduction in long-term costs and vulnerability to infrastructure through the use of resilient construction techniques.
  • An amendment offered by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), which would arguably benefit smaller ports and harbors.  Passed by Unanimous Consent, the language would change the formula for Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund allocations to states for harbor maintenance activities, under which fund allocations would be limited to those states that contributed at least 2.5% of the total amount paid into the fund, and that received less than 50% of those contributions back in the prior three years. The Boxer amendment would also prioritize projects receiving the lowest levels of Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund money compared to the amount contributed to the Fund in the previous three years.
Thirteen Republicans and one Democrat (Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont) voted against the Senate bill (three Senators did not vote).  In the Mississippi River states, eight Senators voted for the measure, with only Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Rand Paul (R-KY) voting no.  Additionally in the River Basin, Tom Coburn (R-OK) voted against the WRDA bill.

Action on a companion WRDA bill in the U.S. House is months away, by most accounts.  The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over WRDA, will likely conduct a series of meetings and hearings on WRDA-related matters before crafting a measure and considering it officially.

Importantly, WRDA does not appropriate funds for those projects and programs. That job falls to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees each year. WRDA projects and costs authorized under the act have typically far outstripped the revenue from their two major funding sources: the Inland Waterway Trust Fund and the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, both of which are vastly oversubscribed and fiscally unsound. This is due in large part to the past WRDA tradition of placing numerous water resources projects into the WRDA bill that for the most part now meet the congressional definition of an "earmark" ("congressional earmark" - House Rule XXI, Clause 9(a)). And the current House ban on earmarks would largely put a stop to that process, arguably necessitating changes to WRDA that provide some mechanism for identifying and prioritizing funding for needed water resource projects.

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