A new water infrastructure measure has moved a long stride nearer to the finish line, with the House's unanimous passage of legislation authorizing at least $9 billion for Army Corps of Engineers civil-works projects and Environmental Protection Agency drinking-water and sewer-overflow control programs.

If the bill is enacted, as its supporters hope, all those authorizations still would require annual appropriations before construction contracts for those projects can move forward.

Still, industry officials welcomed the House's approval of the bill, the America's Water Infrastructure Act, on Sept. 13 by a voice vote. Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies vice president for government affairs, says, "It couples critical, needed Corps water resources project authorizations with additional water infrastructure provisions."    

Infrastructure advocates are hoping for another strong bipartisan margin when the Senate takes up the measure, which, if signed into law, will be one of the few significant infrastructure bills to go on the books this year.

A central part of the House-passed measure is a new Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) title, which authorizes $3.7 billion in federal funds for 12 Corps dredging, flood protection and other projects. When non-federal funding shares are added, those projects' combined price tag is about $5.6 billion.

By far the largest single authorization in that Corps list is $2.2 billion for flood protection and ecosystem restoration along the Texas Gulf Coast.

In addition, the WRDA title includes updated, higher funding ceilings for three other high-profile Corps projects that had been authorized in the past but whose costs had risen past their authorized caps, threatening their progress.

Construction is underway on two of those projects: the deepening of Savannah Harbor in Georgia and a replacement for the Chickamauga Lock on the Tennessee River. The third "project modification" provision is for a new 1,200-ft-long Soo Lock in Michigan, not yet started.

Industry officials also are glad to see Congress on the way to continuing its recent streak of passing a WRDA measure every two years. The two previous WRDAs became law in 2014 and 2016, respectively.

Jim Walker, American Association of Port Authorities director of navigation policy and legislation, says the new bill contains projects that are ready to move to construction authorizations and gets studies under way for others. "That's just kind of keeping things clicking along on a good, regular schedule, says Walker, a former senior Corps civil-works official.

Appropriations Needed

But winning a congressional authorization by no means assures money in the bank for projects. "Clearing that first hurdle just gets you to the next hurdle, which is then the appropriation," Walker says. "But you really can't get to the appropriation without getting the authorization."

Mike Strachn, a senior adviser with water-resources consulting firm Dawson & Associates, says, "It gives [projects], for lack of a better term, a hunting license for new-start designations and construction dollars."

Lots of Corps projects are already in that appropriations hunt. John Doyle, special counsel with law and lobbying firm Jones Walker LLP, notes that the new bill's Corps projects "are going to have to compete with the projects that are already authorized for the Corps of Engineers to construct."

Doyle, a former senior Army civil-works official, notes that the Corps' annual construction appropriation has been running at only about $2 billion. But the roster of authorized and unfunded projects is estimated at $90 billion or more. Doyle says, "It would take a long time—even if no projects' costs increased and no additional projects were authorized—to work your way through that backlog."

Drinking-Water Funding

The new House-approved bill's scope goes well beyond the Corps to include "some substantial provisions on drinking water," notes Strachn, a former Corps civil-works official and House committee aide. The measure  authorizes $4.4 billion over three years for EPA grants for state revolving loan funds (SRFs) to finance drinking-water projects.

It also is the first reauthorization of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 25 years, notes Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Under the legislation, SRF authorizations would rise from $1.17 billion in 2019 to $1.3 billion in 2020 and $1.95 billion in 2021. The program's 2018 appropriations total $1.16 billion.

Tommy Holmes, American Water Works Association legislative director, said via email, "We would have preferred a longer reauthorization, but of course, WRDA's are typically two-year bills."

As with the Corps authorizations, the ones for drinking water have a caveat attached. Holmes says, "The next challenge is seeing this through the next appropriations cycle."

WIFIA Extension

Drinking-water projects also would benefit from the bill's two-year extension for the fledgling Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, which provides low-interest federal loans. The legislation authorizes $50 million a year for two years for WIFIA, which awarded its first loans this year.

Lawmakers also added a new twist to WIFIA, with language that would allow state infrastructure agencies to use the program, with strict limitations, to fund multiple projects and have an expedited environmental review.

Given the dauntingly high estimates for the water infrastructure funding gap, industry groups praise the additional SRF and WIFIA funding. Hall says, "It's all about finding the money for these needs. And we're going to support anything that's going to make it easier for our clients to be able to finance  these upgrades and to get them going."

The American Society of Civil Engineers also hailed the water infrastructure package, noting that, along with WIFIA, it also reauthorizes the National Dam Safety Program and levee safety initiative. Both would be extended through 2023.

In addition, the legislation authorizes $450 million over two years for sewer-overflow control grants and includes provisions aimed at speeding reviews of hydropower projects.

The legislation is the product of an unusual "pre-conferencing" set of negotiations among House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and the committees' top Democrats, Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.) and Sen. Tom Carper (Del.).

In recent weeks, the lawmakers and staffs quietly worked out differences between a WRDA that the House passed in June and a water measure that the Senate committee cleared in May, but it had stalled on the way to the floor. 

The lawmakers announced their agreement on a compromise bill on Sept. 11.

Correction on 9/19/18: House approved bill on Sept. 13.