Plans for new water resources legislation are moving ahead in the House, with committee approval of a bill that authorizes about $25 billion to help finance 20 new or modified Army Corps of Engineers projects for flood and hurricane protection, dredging, ecosystem restoration and other construction efforts.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the new Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, on May 18 on a voice vote.
[View YouTube video of committee markup session here.]
The next step would be a House floor vote. Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said at the end of the panel's lengthy voting session that the measure is expected to go to the floor in June.
In the Senate, the Environment and Public Works Committee on May 4 unanimously approved its version of a 2022 WRDA. It, too, awaits floor action.
The Senate panel’s bill is slightly larger than the House committee’s version, authorizing federal funds for 21 new or modified Corps construction projects.
Its policy provisions include a change in the funding shares for river locks and dams projects. It would increase the general fund's share of such projects to 75%, from the present 65%, and reduce the share from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to 25%. The provision also would make that funding change permanent.
That inland waterways funding shift was not included in the House committee leaders' version, as introduced.
DeFazio said in his opening statement, "This bill was developed in a bipartisan manner with input and ideas from both sides." He added, "Projects and policy provisions included reflect not only members of the committee but from the entire House of Representatives."
DeFazio said that in addition to the new construction authorizations, the WRDA bill includes 72 new Corps feasibility studies and it directs the Corps to complete 15 ongoing studies.
Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, the committee’s top Republican, in his opening statement, noted the importance of infrastructure for ports and inland waterways.
Graves added, "With our current supply chain crisis, supporting water infrastructure is even more critical than ever."
In a May 17 statement, Graves said, “This common-sense bill takes a big step forward in making flood control and navigation the top priorities in managing our rivers.”
The largest project authorization in the House and Senate bills is $19.2 billion for a major hurricane and flood protection plan in coastal Texas.
Other major project allocations in both bills include $1.5 billion in federal funds for a hurricane and storm protection project in the Florida Keys and $1 billion for a storm protection project in Louisiana's Barataria Basin.
The list of projects could well grow as the Corps finishes work on reports recommending authorizations for additional projects. The Army's Chief of Engineers would have to sign off on those "chief's reports" before submitting them to Congress to be included in the 2022 WRDA.
John Doyle, special counsel with law and lobbying firm Jones Walker LLP, says, “There’s still at least the possibility, if not the probability, that more projects are going to be added as weeks and months go by."
Construction industry groups also support a new WRDA.
Michele Stanley, National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association vice president of governmental and regulatory affairs, said in a statement that the bill "gives two years of certainty for funding that allows producers to supply the critical building materials that [go] into each of these projects."
Year-End Target for Passage
Lawmakers in both chambers want to see Congress complete work on a WRDA measure by the end of the year.
That would continue the recent practice of approving WRDA bills on a biennial schedule. WRDAs have been enacted every other year since 2014.
This year’s congressional session will be shortened by the November elections and the pre-election break for candidates to campaign. That could squeeze the time available to finish a WRDA measure before the elections.
But the recent House and Senate actions are viewed as positive steps. Doyle, a former senior Army civil works official, said in an interview with ENR, “It’s always possible that problems could arise to delay things, but it certainly strikes me as increasing the likelihood and the ability of Congress to finish their work on this legislation before taking off to try and extend their contracts with the American people in November.”
The text of this article was updated on May 18, 2022 to reflect the House committee's vote and statements from the panel's markup session.