A big water resources measure that authorizes more than $6 billion for new Corps of Engineers lock improvements, environmental restoration work and other projects has advanced in the Senate. The Environment and Public Works Committee cleared the legislation April 13 on a unanimous voice vote. Industry officials are hoping the action is a step towards passing a new Water Resources Development Act this year. The last one was enacted in 2000.

Bill would fund new lock at Quincy, Ill., and four others on upper Mississippi, two on Illinois River (Photo by Corps
of Engineers)

But environmental and other advocacy groups are livid about the new bill. They are particularly incensed about provisions that deal with reviews of Corps projects and say they fall far short of the sort of scrutiny by independent evaluators that the groups have long been seeking. Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.) offered an amendment to establish such outside peer reviews--which he said Senate negotiators had agreed to last year--but the committee defeated it on a voice vote.

Before Congress adjourned last year House and Senate lawmakers tried to work out differences over a WRDA measure, but failed. The new water resources bill's main sponsor, Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), told his committee colleagues, "The simple fact is we can only get a bill completed and sent to the President if we aim to the center. If we do what we did last year with policy issues, we will end up where we did last year--that is, with no bill." He said his bill's project-review provisions have many supporters, including the Associated General Contractors, American Association of Port Authorities and the carpenters' and laborers' unions.

The big construction item in the bill is a package of seven new locks and ecosystem restoration projects on the upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. The measure authorizes $1.8 billion in federal funds for the new, 1,200-ft-long locks, five on the Mississippi and two on the Illinois. It also would provide $235 million for new mooring facilities and other "non-structural" improvements on the rivers and $1.6 billion for environmental projects, including new fish passages, building islands, and restoring backwaters and side channels.

The measure also authorizes about $2.7 billion for a total of 35 other major Corps projects around the country.

The next step in the Senate would be floor action, but Bond said the highway-transit authorization would be taken up before WRDA.

There has been no WRDA action yet this year in the House.