After the House’s overwhelming approval of a $9-billion measure authorizing a large batch of new Army Corps of Engineers projects—plus funds to upgrade the lead-tainted Flint, Mich., water system—construction and water industry officials are shifting their focus to House-Senate negotiations to hammer out a final water resources bill during the post-election congressional session.
The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which the House passed by a convincing 399-25 margin on Sept. 28, authorizes about $9 billion for 31 Corps flood protection, harbor dredging, environmental restoration and other projects that have received favorable reports from the Army’s Chief of Engineers.
House lawmakers next must reconcile differences between their legislation and a much broader measure that the Senate passed on Sept. 15, by a resounding 95-3 vote. The venue for those discussions will be a House-Senate conference committee expected to convene in a lame duck session after the Nov. 8 elections. Industry officials, who welcomed the recent burst of WRDA progress, expect House and Senate staffers to hold pre-conference discussions to work out differences over some less-controversial issues.
There should be little controversy in conference about the traditional Corps projects: the two bills’ lists of authorizations are nearly identical.
Both versions also have money for Flint and other localities suffering from troubled drinking water infrastructure. The House has $170 million for Flint drinking water, through a Corps authorization. It took tough bipartisan negotiations in the days before the chamber’s vote to get that language into its WRDA.
Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies vice president for government affairs, says the aid for Flint was the last obstacle to a House WRDA floor vote. He says, “Now that they’re over that hump they can work out those details and turn around a final package quickly in a lame duck.”
The Senate bill includes $220 million in drinking water aid for Flint and other areas, through an Environmental Protection Agency authorization. Of that sum, $100 million is for drinking-water state revolving funds and $70 million would cover federal subsidies for Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. Those subsidies could support at least $700 million—and maybe up to $4.2 billion—in federal loans.
But the major difference is the Senate version’s extensive provisions authorizing about $6 billion several billion dollars of Environmental Protection Agency drinking water and wastewater treatment programs. The House’s newly passed WRDA has none of those provisions.
Observers agree that that conferees will agree to include aid for Flint in the final version. John Doyle, special counsel to law and lobbying firm Jones Walker LLP, says, “Flint will get funds, in my opinion. The amount and the mechanism will be up to the conferees to determine.”
But the Senate legislation also has much more for drinking-water programs, including $1.4 billion over five years to help small and disadvantaged communities meet Safe Drinking Water Act requirements, plus $300 million to replace lead service lines and deal with related issues.
Moreover, the Senate measure also includes $1.8 billion for EPA’s combined sewer overflow program, $1.5 billion for a Great Lakes restoration program and a total of $1 billion for restoration programs for other watersheds, including Long Island Sound, and the Delaware and Columbia river basins and Lake Tahoe.
Perhaps the most intriguing Senate EPA-related provision is a new clean water and drinking water trust fund, to be supported by “fees collected for a voluntary labeling system.” The labels would come from EPA at a cost of 3¢ each and could be affixed to such products as soft drinks and detergents.
Construction, engineering and water groups will be pushing for the Corps projects and the drinking water and wastewater provisions, too. Pat Sinicropi, National Association of Clean Water Agencies senior legislative director, says, “We will be certainly be working very hard to preserve as many of the program authorizations for funding and as many of the policy reforms [as possible] that are contained in the Senate bill, through conference.”
Sean O’Neill, Associated General Contractors of America senior director for infrastructure advancement, notes that the House has passed legislation authorizing the Great Lakes program and says the water trust fund has bipartisan support in that chamber, too. O’Neill says they are among Senate provisions “that we feel that the House could and should agree to include in the final version.”
Opinions are divided about whether they will make it into the conferees’ eventual package. Mike Strachn, a senior advisor with Dawon & Associates, Washington, D.C., says, “If I had to guess, I would say that many of the nontraditional [water] provisions in the Senate bill will end up making their way into the final product.”
But Jones Walker’s Doyle, a former top House transportation panel aide, predicts that most of the Senate drinking-water, wastewater and watershed restoration provisions won’t be in the final bill, because they would require several billion dollars for programs whose current appropriations already lag far behind those sectors’ estimated funding needs. He adds, “It’s just hard for me to imagine that the conferees will decide to create a set of expectations through authorizing a host of new programs that aren’t likely to be funded (through appropriations).”
There is widespread optimism that a new WRDA will become law this year. Strachn, who also was a senior House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee staffer, says, “My guess is that they will find a way to bridge the gap.”
Jim Walker, American Association of Port Authorities director of navigation policy and legislation, says, “The leaders, the committee chairs, really want to see this happen.”
Sinicropi says, “I think chances are good that we’ll see a final bill.” She adds, “I mean, 95 senators and 399 House members don’t always agree on anything and they both agree that WRDA’s an important piece of legislation that should be moved.”
The lame duck session is expected to be brief, lasting perhaps only into early or mid-December, with a break for Thanksgiving. Nevertheless, Walker says, “Looking at that limited calendar versus [House and Senate WRDA leaders’] abilities, I’d probably put my money on them making it happen.”.
Getting projects into that final WRDA would be “a major milestone in the process,” says Walker, “but it’s not the finish line.” The authorizations must be followed by annual appropriations. Even if appropriations materialize, they will be spread over many years.
Strachn observes that a 2016 WRDA-authorized project first would need to win an appropriation for preconstruction design and engineering. That design stage isn’t short. He says, “It’ll be literally several years before many of these projects start to turn dirt.”
Walker notes that of the eight port projects in the last WRDA, signed in 2014, only three are underway—and only one of those has received federal appropriations. State money launched the other two.
Still, the overwhelming House vote has given WRDA backers a lift. They note that if a WRDA becomes law this year, it would mark a return to a practice in in some past decades of enacting water resources measures roughly every two years. The last WRDA came in 2014, but the previous one became law seven years earlier.
Strachn points out, “The [WRDA] process is back on a two-year track—or so it seems—and that’s what counts.” If the House-Senate conference breaks down and no new water resources measure goes on the books this year, the new Congress would have to start all over again to draft a new WRDA. And all those projects in the 2016 bills would have to wait to even get design money.
AGC’s O’Neill notes that if WRDA makes it to the finish line by January, it would be the second major infrastructure bill enacted in about 12 months, following the December 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act. He says, “To do the FAST Act and now the WRDA bill, I think, is great for Congress in order to show that they can actually work in a bipartisan way on important infrastructure legislation. And obviously it’s good for our members and the economy overall.”