With a strong bipartisan vote of 83–14, the Senate okayed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), a popular biannual bill that authorizes Army Corps of Engineers projects and provides policy direction to the Corps.
WRDA (S. 601) would authorize $12.5 billion for many water-related projects in counties involving navigation channels, harbors, beach management, levee repair, aquatic ecosystems, flood emergency and water infrastructure projects through the Corps. The yearly appropriations process determines the funding levels for WRDA projects.
Included in the measure is a provision to review the Corps’ vegetation management policy. The Corps’ policy requires all vegetation, except grass, to be removed from levees in order to allow for easier inspections and to reduce any potential weakening of levees through root growth. Levees that the Corps finds to be out of compliance with its vegetation policy will be ineligible for federal disaster assistance. The Corps policy often puts local governments in conflict with other federal and state rules on vegetation, especially when considered as habitat for listed species under the Endangered Species Act.
Meanwhile, the measure contains good news for harbor maintenance. S.601 would increase funding from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF), which historically has collected more in shippers’ fees, than it’s spent and subsequently boasts a $7 billion balance. Proceeds from the trust are used to finance the dredging of ports and harbors.
Beginning with $1 billion in FY14, spending would increase every year thereafter by $100 million through FY19. Beginning in FY20 all funds collected would need to be spent.
In another provisions WRDA creates a Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Authority (WIFIA) pilot program to fund Corps and EPA projects for a period of five years though loan and loan guarantees for water supply, wastewater and flood control projects. It also creates an additional pilot program to cede control to non-federal partners for Corps projects in order to reduce costs and to evaluate alternatives for the decentralization of federal projects.
Last enacted in 2007, WRDA has faced an uphill battle over the past several years due to the earmark ban. The bill carefully avoided the earmark ban by granting the Corps authority over what projects should move forward. This decision has caused controversy in the House where members are concerned about giving the Corps too much authority over projects.
WRDA reauthorization now moves to the House where the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is expected to draft its own WRDA version.