The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is laying the groundwork for a follow-up bill to the 2014 Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), which authorized nearly three dozen Army Corps of Engineers civil works projects and directed major policy changes in how Corps projects are reviewed and financed. House committee leaders are aiming to get the new bill introduced and finished by this summer.
In the Senate, the Environment and Public Works Committee also is planning a water resources measure, an aide says.
But the legislation faces high hurdles to enactment in this election year, including a shortened congressional schedule and the possibility that partisan politics will flare up and block the measure's progress.
Still, industry officials welcome the possibility of having a new WRRDA just two years after the last one. That would be a big improvement from the gap of more than six years between the 2007 water resources law and the 2014 statute.
Passing a bill this year is by no means a sure thing, however. John Doyle, special counsel with law and lobbying firm Jones Walker LLP, says, “The only bill that’s going to make it through this year, if one does, is one that’s completely noncontroversial. And so that suggests that it will be small and...streamlined.”
Doyle, a former top Army civil works official, notes, “We’re in a presidential election year and that usually acts as a brake on legislative activity.”
Committees are getting to work, nevertheless. The House transportation committee held a Feb. 2 roundtable discussion on the envisioned new bill, getting comments from waterways, engineering and other groups on what they would like to see in the legislation.
Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said, “We’re starting the process now. We intend to do something this spring.” Compared with the 2014 WRRDA, Shuster added, “We anticipate this bill will be easier to do in the sense that we had a lot of major reforms last time.”
Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), who chairs the T&I panel’s water resources and environment subcommittee, told reporters after the meeting, “Our goal is to try to have a bill done by summer.”
He added that the new proposal won’t be a major rewrite of the 2014 WRRDA. “It’s going to be more tweaking, I think, and where we can do things… to help the Corps do a better job.”
Though a 2016 WRRDA would follow the earlier one by just two years, its number of authorized projects might not be far from WRRDA 2014's total. The Corps on Feb. 2 delivered to Congress its latest WRRDA 2014-mandated annual report, which lists projects that meet criteria for possible congressional authorization.
The report found that 30 projects met the criteria. By comparison, WRRDA 2014 authorized 34 Corps projects, whose federal cost totaled $15.6 billion. It also deauthorized $18 billion in older, inactive projects.
Amy Larson, president of the National Waterways Conference, told ENR that she is “cautiously optimistic” that Congress will pass a WRRDA bill in 2016, even in an election-year environment.
Larson, who took part in the committee’s panel discussion, expects that, besides project authorizations, the new bill will have a “fix” in the 2014 measure’s provision dealing with the Corps’ annual project list. Gibbs said that the first Corps post-WRRDA project report, delivered last year, gave lawmakers “a little bit of heartburn.”
Larson also says the new WRRDA also may include provisions that go further than the 2014 law did to accelerate Corps project reviews. She says, “One of the things that we keep hearing about is there’s so much regulatory burden—how do we streamline it?”
Other speakers proposed a variety of provisions they would like to see included in the new water resources legislation. For example, the American Association of Port Authorities would like to see the federal-nonfederal cost split for harbor maintenance dredging to to 50-50 at depths greater than 50 ft., said Kathy Broadwater, Maryland Port Administration deputy executive director. That share now applies for dredging at depths greater than 45 ft.
Mike Strachn, a senior advisor with Dawson and Associates, Washington, D.C., says, "It's a legislatively compressed year," including party conventions in July. "And expectations are being tamped down in terms of what could be expected generally."
But Strachn, a long-time Corps official and former T&I aide, says of a 2016 WRRDA, "I would not count this out." He notes that the key WRRDA lawmakers—Shuster, Senate EPW Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), and Democrats, Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.) had a big success with the five-year transportation bill enacted in December. Strachn says, "This is the same cast of characters who have proven people wrong before."
Story updated on 2/5/2016 with link to Corps 2016 report to Congress.