Thursday, May 15, 2014

Water Resources Bill Details Trickle Out - UPDATED

PLEASE NOTE: The Conference Report has now been released, and updated information on the WRRDA bill can be found here.  

As has been widely reported, a  bicameral, bipartisan deal was reached last week to send a conference committee report for the long-delayed national water resources bill (known as the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA)) to both congressional chambers for consideration in the next several weeks. WRRDA (historically known as the Water Resources Development Act - or WRDA) is a massive public works bill that authorizes flood control, navigation, and water resource projects, maintenance and studies by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A House-Senate conference committee has been negotiating to resolve the differences between a House WRRDA bill passed by that chamber in October 2013, and a companion Water Resources Development Act (S. 601) bill passed by the Senate last May.

It now looks as though the WRRDA conference report will be released next week after members of the conference committee agree to the compromise language (the House is recessed this week). Should the conferee approval be relatively quick and bipartisan, as expected by the conference committee leaders, votes in both chambers may follow in relatively quick succession.

Details of the bill are largely unknown outside of the conference committee; however, statements by some of the committee members have shed light on what is and is not contained in the compromise measure. Based on those statements, the legislation:
  • Expedites the process for reviewing the feasibility of water infrastructure projects (feasibility studies would need to be completed in no more than three years and at a cost not greater than $3 million);
  • Includes a provision to help limit Asian carp movement into Minnesota’s waterways upstream of Minneapolis by closing the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock on the Mississippi River within one year;
  • Allows the Army Corps of Engineers to make a decision on levee vegetation based on local circumstances;
  • Authorizes permanent flood protection in the Fargo-Moorhead region (authorizing permanent flood protection in the Red River Valley); 
  • Bars the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from charging residents and businesses for Missouri River reservoir water from Lake Sakakawea for a period of ten years;
  • Would make changes to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF), so that relatively more money in the fund is used for port and harbor maintenance.  In recent years, nearly half of the HMFT has been used by congressional appropriators each year to address general fund needs rather than being used for harbor maintenance (although in the compromise bill that baseline would apparently be approximately 65 percent). The bill would increase the amount of the HMTF that is spent on harbor maintenance by two percent a year through 2020, so that by that year 80 percent of the Trust Fund would be spent on harbor maintenance;
  • Prioritizes funding for high-and medium-use ports, and increase the Federal cost-share threshold for Army Corps of Engineers operation and management responsibility for navigation channels from 45-foot to 50-foot depths;
  • Authorizes construction of and future "levee lifts" for the Morganza to the Gulf Hurricane Protection Project (a flood protection system for Terrebonne Parish and Lafourche Parish, Louisiana);
  • Authorizes $1.07 billion for the Mississippi Coastal Improvements Program, which would establish a system for hurricane and storm damage risk reduction and restoration measures in coastal Mississippi;
  • Allows a non-federal interest to receive bankable credit if it carries out operation and maintenance responsibilities for a federal navigation project.  That credit could then be applied toward future construction costs associated with related projects;
  • Authorizes coastal and ecosystem restoration through the construction of six Louisiana Coastal Area projects;
  • Would not create a National Endowment for the Oceans, an authorization proposed in the Senate version of the bill;
  • Would not include an amendment proposed Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) that Democrats argue would have effectively gutted the authority of the Obama Administration’s National Ocean Policy; and
  • Authorizes a new Army Corps of Engineers program that would help improve ocean and coastal ecosystem resiliency by funding projects such as those securing beaches against erosion, and protecting estuaries that might mitigate against the effects of storm surges.

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