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Bipartisan water infrastructure bill approved by Congress, heads to president’s desk

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Senate overwhelmingly approves America’s Water Infrastructure Act (WRDA 2018/S. 3021) Bipartisan legislation would authorize $6.1 billion for U.S. Army Corps studies and projects and $4.4 billion for the state drinking water revolving loan fund

On October 10, the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive water infrastructure package to authorize the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) by a vote of 99-1. The NACo-supported, bipartisan legislation now heads to the president’s desk for his signature. This is the third WRDA bill passed in the past six years, settling WRDA back into its regular two-year authorization cycle after only three bills were passed in the last eleven years.

Most notably for counties, the WRDA legislation will require the Army Corps to consult with impacted stakeholders, including local governments, on future and pending WRDA projects, annual district budgets, deauthorized projects and guidance documents. The bill will also authorize $6.1 billion for 12 Army Corps projects and 65 feasibility studies for potential projects. It also includes $4.4 billion for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Drinking Water State Revolving Fund program, which provides funds to states and utilities to improve drinking water infrastructure.

The bill, America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 (WRDA 2018/S. 3021), was pieced together from a previously-passed House WRDA package (H.R. 8) and a Senate WRDA bill (S. 2800). S. 2800 was unable to move independently through the Senate due to a hold by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) regarding an unrelated issue (reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired at the end of September). As a work-around, committee staff negotiated a new bipartisan bill, which the U.S. House of Representatives passed last month.

The compromise bill will authorize a wide variety of water resource projects and policies administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) related to navigation, flood control, hydropower, recreation, ports, harbors, inland waterways, water supply and emergency management. As major owners and and operators of much of this infrastructure, counties are directly impacted by the policies and projects authorized in WRDA.

Other provisions of interest to counties include:

  • Authorizes cost-benefit analysis studies. The legislation authorizes existing cost-benefit analysis studies used by the Army Corps and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to determine which water resource projects are submitted to Congress for WRDA authorization.
  • Allows communities to work with the Army Corps on decertified levees. The bill will allow the Army Corps to provide technical assistance, on a reimbursable basis, to local governments that own levees not accredited by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Decertified levees lead to higher National Flood Insurance Program costs for homeowners. This provision will authorize the Army Corps to identify barriers to certification.
  • Increases the focus on natural and nature-based features. The bill directs the Army Corps to consider and include natural and nature-based features in project determinations in aquatic ecosystems or estuaries.
  • Increases the focus on renewable energy projects. The bill will require the Army Corps to identify dams that can be used for hydropower and ports that can be used for wind energy. This will increase the use of renewable energy nationwide.
  • Requires drinking water systems risk assessments and emergency recompense plans. The bill mandates drinking water systems with over 3,300 users to undertake risk assessment and emergency response plans to assess the risk and resilience of its system from both natural and manmade hazards.

Absent from the legislation are provisions addressing the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) and EPA’s Integrated Planning (IP) Framework; NACo advocated for the inclusion of both of these provisions in the final bill. HMTF is a tax levied against importers and domestic shippers using ports and harbors in coast and Great Lakes areas. Even though the HMTF has a large surplus, only a portion of its total is appropriated by Congress every year for operations and maintenance in the nation’s harbors.

The IP Framework, on the other hand, was designed to help communities struggling to comply with tighter Clean Water Act (CWA) requirements. IP would help communities prioritize CWA investments, while meeting CWA mandates and environmental goals. Congressional leaders have indicated a willingness to continue to work on HMTF and IP moving forward, separate from the WRDA 2018 bill.

WRDA currently has a backlog of nearly $100 billion worth of projects that have been authorized but have not yet received appropriations. The current WRDA legislation will be added to the list of projects awaiting congressional appropriations.

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