A new water resources bill has taken twp big steps closer to approval following the House's approval of a compromise measure worked out in negotiations among lawmakers from both chambers.

The legislation, the product of a bipartisan, bicameral deal, would authorize about $9.9 billion in federal funds for 46 Army Corps of Engineers flood control, environmental restoration, coastal protection and other projects. ENR estimates the projects’ total costs, including nonfederal shares, at $14.4 billion.

[View summary of bill here, section-by-section breakdown here and full text of bill here.]

Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies senior vice president for advocacy, said in an interview, "It's great that the bill is moving forward."

He adds, "It's just another great example of how lawmakers are able to come together on infrastructure at times when they can come together on little else."

But advocates of Environmental Protection Agency water infrastructure programs, including aid for wastewater-treatment projects, were disappointed that lawmakers didn’t include any funding in the bill beyond the dollars for the Corps.

The House passed the new Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, on Dec. 8 under suspension of the chamber's rules, a move that allowed for quick approval on a voice vote.

The path in the Senate is less clear, but one possibility would be for the WRDA to become part of an omnibus 2021 spending measure-coronavirus relief and stimulus package. That legislation is still being negotiated.

The legislation also deauthorizes up to $10 billion in other Corps projects, whose authorizations are “outdated and antiquated,” according to House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Democrats’ summary of the bill.

That $10-billion deauthorization would make the overall bill’s net cumulative cost negligible.

John Doyle, special counsel with law and lobbying firm Jones Walker LLC, said in an interview, “Clearly the number of projects that are being authorized is significant.” The 2018 and 2016 WRDA laws each authorized construction of 30 projects.

Doyle, a former senior Army civil works official, also notes that the bill, if signed into law, would continue the recent history of enacting a WRDA every two years. He says that keeping to that schedule “is important to keep the program current with the most recent developments.”

NACWA's criticism

But other water industry officials criticized the new WRDA for being Corps-centric.

Nathan Gardner-Andrews, National Association of Clean Water Agencies general counsel and chief advocacy officer, said in a statement, “It is disappointing Congress was unable to provide needed new funding for public clean water utilities in the final WRDA package, especially given the amazing work these utilities have done on the front lines of public health protection since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Mike Strachn, a senior adviser with water resource consultants Dawson and Associates, said via email, "While everyone recognizes the importance of investment in clean water and drinking water infrastructure, committee leaders recognized the need to keep traditional Corps WRDA authorizations on a two-year cycle."

Strachn, a former top House committee aide, added that holding to that time frame will enable new projects to begin detailed design. He also said, "Surely, the next Congress awill take up broader water infrastructure."

As with past WRDAs, project authorizations are a core element of the new one.

Policy and trust fund changes

The bill has important policy changes, too. Doyle points to a change in the cost shares for inland waterway projects, to 65% from the general fund and 35% from the Inland Waterway Trust Fund, from a 50-50 split now. That change would allow the trust fund dollars to stretch further, to assist more projects.

The bill also further opens up the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, Doyle says, “It means the potential of significant additional operation and maintenance funding, particularly, for the nation’s ports and harbors. But the operative word there is ‘potential.’ “

According to a summary from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the legislation would authorize an additional $2 billion per year for harbor dredging projects from the trust fund’s balance. But release of the funds would be up to the appropriations committees.  

In addition, the committee noted that the bill directs the secretary of the Army to issue final Corps procedures for its “Principles, Requirements and Guidelines” for water projects that would ensure they would place a priority on sustainable development and restore natural ecological systems.

In addition, it would clarify that projects’ natural features would have the same federal cost share as those with structural features.

It will be up to the appropriations committees to determine how much funds to be included in annual appropriations.

Strachn, who also worked for the Corps for more than 20 years, said, "As critically important as a WRDA is, this represents the first of two steps required to get projects on line."

He added, "The next step will be for the Corps and its nonfederal partners to seek funding to make the projects happen."

Story updated on Dec. 8 with House approval.