Hopeful signs are emerging on Capitol Hill that Congress will pass a Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, this year, just two years after the last one became law. But the path is by no means clear for a 2016 bill, which would authorize funds for new Army Corps of Engineers civil-works projects. Political parties’ conventions and election campaigning will cut the Hill calendar short. Partisan battles also may slow legislative action.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a key WRDA player, is upbeat. “We are back on schedule to pass a WRDA bill every two years,” he said at a March 16 hearing. The panel’s top Democrat, Barbara Boxer (Calif.), added, “There is nothing standing in our way. I’m very hopeful we can really have a strong WRDA bill.” There were seven-year gaps between the past three water-resources bills. From 1988 through 2000, the intervals were one to four years.
A long list of flood control, harbor dredging, ecosystem restoration and other projects already are standing in line for the envisioned 2016 bill. Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, and Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, Army chief of engineers, told Inhofe’s committee that, since the last bill, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, was signed in June 2014, Army “chief’s reports” have been completed on 33 projects. Their estimated total costs are $6.2 billion, including a $3.1-billion federal share. WRDAs authorize the federal portion. Authorized projects still would require annual appropriations.
Bostick said he expected reports on 12 more projects to be done by Sept. 30. The 2014 act authorized $15.6 billion in federal funds for 34 projects. Projects’ local sponsors and Hill allies want the Corps to finish reports on their projects before the new bill’s language is locked in. If they miss the hoped-for 2016 WRDA, they would have to wait for the next one. “So, there’s that rush to catch the train,” says Jim Walker, American Association of Port Authorities director of navigation policy and legislation.
Walker says Inhofe’s panel and its House counterpart “are making great progress,” adding that aides are looking at drafting bills during the Easter recess. “From that perspective, we think that they’ll be ready,” he says. “And it’s a matter of getting floor time and moving forward with it.”