Congress Takes First Step to Develop New Water Resources Bill

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Several members of Congress from the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee gathered in New Orleans earlier this month to listen to stakeholders offer their wishes for a new water resources bill the Committee has pledged to introduce in 2016. Spearheaded by freshman Congressman Garrett Graves (R-LA), T&I Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) and Water Resources Subcommittee Chairman Bob Gibbs (R-OH) joined a roundtable discussion focused mainly on flood control and dredging projects sponsored by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Committee’s goal is get the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) back on a two-year authorization cycle, after letting the legislation lie fallow for seven years before finally passing a bill in 2014.

Stakeholders representing the ports and inland waterways industries focused heavily on Section 7001 of WRDA. That section requires the Corps to submit an annual report to Congress identifying feasibility reports, proposed feasibility studies and proposed modifications to projects or studies. Section 7001 is the way projects get “named” in the absence of earmarks. Panelists noted that in the Corps 2015 report to Congress of the 114 proposals submitted by non-federal sponsors around the country, only 19 were deemed to have satisfied the criteria in Section 7001. Moreover, they continued, all 19 were proposed feasibility studies, meaning that no proposals for project authorizations or project modifications were sent to Congress. The outstanding question is whether the “federal standard” to recommend a project or study is too strict or if there are larger issues with how the standard is being interpreted. Either way, new project authorizations are hard to come by in Congress and the Administration’s budget, slowing necessary infrastructure development down across the country.

Another hot topic of discussion was the beneficial use of dredge material. Several stakeholders from Louisiana urged greater flexibility in the use of dredge material. The material is valuable for wetland restoration projects in Southern Louisiana, but current policy often prohibits pumping the material for use in restoration projects and instead contractors are often required to dump it downriver or off the continental shelf. Changes in Corps policy and cost-benefit analyses could help alleviate the problem.

Moving forward the Committee will likely hold a hearing in early 2016 on the next WRDA bill. That pace, while welcomed by many, does face practical obstacles considering the Corps has only implemented about 50% of guidance required under the 2014 law. It’s important that the Corps continue to issue guidance and that Congress provides the agency necessary resources in both the operational and construction budgets. No word yet on a Senate timeline.

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