Last Friday, the Senate Environment & Public Works (EPW) Committee released S. 4137, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) for 2022. The committee held a brief but collegial hearing on Wednesday where the bill was unanimously reported favorably to the Senate floor. The full Senate is expected to take up WRDA by early June, with the House expected to follow soon after. This keeps the bill on pace to maintain the biennial time frame for consideration that has generally been observed for the water infrastructure bill in recent years.
The WRDA bill focuses on several new water infrastructure projects, as well as modifications for ongoing projects nationwide. It provides $24.6 billion for 21 new U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) projects related to ports and inland waterways, flood risk management, storm risk reduction, and ecosystem restoration.
The largest of these authorizations supports a $19 billion federal investment for the Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study, which proposes the development of a new coastal storm barrier along Texas’s Gulf Coast. This proposal was formulated in the wake of Hurricane Ike, which devastated towns along the Gulf Coast in 2008 and was the third costliest hurricane in U.S. history.
While the WRDA bill provides a heavy focus on Corps projects, it also proposes several policy changes to the nation’s water infrastructure policies. Provisions in the 2022 WRDA bill include:
- Declaring U.S. policy to guard shorelines and riverbanks from the severe effects of climate change
- Adjustment of the coast share formula for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund
- Authorizing dredging activities in underserved community harbors
- New efforts to support the Corps’ workforce through recruitment for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers
- Measures to enhance climate resilience for water infrastructure
- Improvements to dam and levee safety programs
Prioritizing Resilience in the WRDA Bill
WRDA 2022 includes several measures which recognize the need to enhance the resilience of the nation’s water infrastructure. It does so by first making climate resilience for the nation’s coastlines, riverbanks, and streambeds a centerpiece of U.S. policy. To do this, the legislation authorizes the Corps to carry out restoration and protection projects for coastlines and riverbanks, and it does so in an environmentally just manner by reducing the non-federal cost-share on such projects to 10% for disadvantaged communities.
Additionally, the WRDA bill allows emergency funds to be used to enhance resilience measures for federal hurricane and shore protection projects, and it includes “Sense of Congress” language, which says that federal disaster recovery projects and repairs should be done in a manner that either restores the original project design levels or enhances project design levels if the original is out of date.
WRDA 2022 also includes several provisions to support the development and improvement of the nation’s inland waterways. Specifically, the bill adjusts the cost share of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF) from 65% general revenue and 35% IWTF to 75%25%.ASCE strongly supports this provision and recommends this action in the 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure in order to raise the nation’s “D+” inland waterways grade.
The legislation also authorizes the Corps to dredge underserved community harbors and inland waterways. This will help to address a more than $12 billion funding gap for waterside infrastructure needs, including dredging activity, over the next 10 years.
STEM Workforce Focus for the Corps
This year’s WRDA also includes provisions to strengthen the infrastructure workforce by fostering careers in STEM fields. The bill authorizes the Corps to carry out activities to strengthen STEM education awareness and recruit men and women in these fields for careers with the Corps. It allows the Corps to partner with nonprofits, colleges, universities, and technical schools to carry out these activities, and it prioritizes the recruitment of individuals from underserved communities.
Strengthening the nation’s STEM workforce and fostering the development of a new generation of civil engineers is critical to ensuring that the U.S. can continue designing and building critical infrastructure for the 21st century. The 2021 report card recommends the establishment of programs to support next-generation growth in “green collar” jobs with individuals who can support the development and management of modern systems.
Dams and Levees in the WRDA Bill
Finally, the Senate’s version of this legislation includes provisions to enhance the safety of the nation’s dams and levees. The nation’s 92,000 dams and nearly 30,000 miles of levees are critical components of the nation’s water infrastructure, and they support risk reduction, ensure the safety of communities, and protect trillions of dollars in property.
It is estimated, however, that the nation’s dams require more than $70 billion in rehabilitation efforts, while the cost of maintaining and improving the nation’s levees over the next decade is roughly $80 billion. These factors contributed to ASCE giving a “D” grade to dams and levees nationwide in its 2021 report card.
While the WRDA bill did not include sweeping changes to the nation’s dam safety programs, it does require the Corps to establish a new National Low-Head Dam Inventory to account for the nation’s low-head dams.
Low-head dams are smaller, man-made structures in which water flows over the entire length of the dam. These dams can pose significant public hazards by creating strong, recirculating currents that can trap people under water. Identifying and monitoring these types of dams nationwide will contribute to the overall safety of the nation’s dams and help save lives.
To address the condition of the nation’s levees, the Senate’s WRDA legislation expands the scope of the Levee Rehabilitation Assistance Program. It does so by including levee improvements to increase climate resilience and reduce flood risk under the definition of “rehabilitation”. It also increases the maximum amount of federal funds that can be provided for rehabilitation projects from $10 million to $25 million, and it prioritizes projects in economically disadvantaged communities.
ASCE strongly supports the 2022 Water Resources and Development Act and urges continued progress and timely passage by the House and Senate in order to continue WRDA’s two-year schedule. We will continue monitoring the WRDA legislative process as it develops.