Two key U.S. senators have unveiled bipartisan draft legislation that would authorize $19.5 billion for Army Corps of Engineers flood protection, ecological restoration and other projects, as well as Environmental Protection Agency wastewater treatment and drinking water programs, more than double the funding the last water package provided.

If approved and enacted in 2020, the two-bill package, drafted by Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and the panel’s top Democrat, Tom Carper of Delaware, would continue the recent practice of passing a water infrastructure measure every other year.

The bills' funding is subject to annual appropriations, however.

In releasing the draft measures on April 21, Barrasso noted that President Trump has called for Congress to pass infrastructure legislation after the “immediate health crisis” of the coronavirus pandemic passes. Barrasso said the new water infrastructure proposal and a five-year, $287-billion highway bill that the committee approved last July “will answer that call.”

The water legislation’s two components are the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2020 (AWIA 2020), which includes Corps and EPA clean water provisions, and the Drinking Water Infrastructure Act.

A central element of the legislation would be the $4.3 billion in federal funds that it authorizes for 20 Corps water projects. The federal dollars would be supplemented by nonfederal funds.

The AWIA 2020's largest single project allocation is $909 million for the federal share of a $1.4-billion flood protection program in Norfolk, Va.

Another large Corps project authorization is a $794-million federal share for a $983.7-million flood protection plan for the Rockaways, Queens, area on the Atlantic shore of Long Island, N.Y.

Besides the Corps funding, AWIA 2020 authorizes $7.5 billion over three years for EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs)—which help finance wastewater treatment projects—and $2.5 billion for drinking water SRFs.

The Clean Water SRF funding, however, is only conditional so far. It hinges on whether its budgetary “scoring” would require offsetting revenue increases. If it does, the AWIA bill’s text says “adequate and broadly supported offsets will have to be found” to keep the $7.5-billion authorization in the legislation.

The last bill, America's Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, authorized $3.7 billion for 12 Corps projects plus $4.4 billion for drinking water state revolving funds, but no money for clean water SRFs.

Kristina Surfus, National Association of Clean Water Agencies managing director for government affairs, says that “all in all, it is a strong bipartisan funding package for clean water.”

Surfus noted in an email to ENR that the $7.5-billion authorization is “a significant boost” for the Clean Water SRF. The bill's annual average for those SRFs would be $2.5 billion; the program's fiscal year 2020 appropriation is $1.6 billion.

Surfus also cited provisions increasing funding for grants for sewer overflow and stormwater projects. The legislation would authorize $250 million a year for two years for sewer overflow and stormwater reuse grants, up from $225 million per year now.

The National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA) sees the Barrasso-Carper proposal as a good starting point but also favors more funding. 

Doug Carlson, NUCA chief executive officer, said in an April 22 statement that "at a time when national funding needs are around a half-trillion dollars, lawmakers will have to include much more investment to both [bills in the package] for this legislation to make a real difference."

As with all infrastructure legislation, funding is the center of the new Barrasso and Carper proposal. But the measure also includes important policy provisions.

For example, in a move to expedite Corps project approvals, AWIA 2000 would set a goal of completing a project's feasibility studies within two years.

Since 2012, the Corps has used what it calls the “3x3x3 rule,” which calls for completing feasibility studies within three years, for a maximum of $3 million and involving Corps district, division and headquarter levels.

Jim Walker, American Association of Port Authorities director of government relations, said via email, “We appreciate the efforts of Senator Barrasso and Senator Carper to remove hurdles and streamline processes to the Corps navigation program.”

In the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has been working on a water resources bill since early this year and is "in the process of gathering ideas from members," a committee aide said. Leaders of the panel hope to introduce a bill by Memorial Day, the staffer added.