A new Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, has picked up steam in Congress. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on March 20 unanimously approved a bill that would authorize new Corps of Engineers projects, revise civil-works policies and give added financial help to get projects built.
Industry officials say they welcome progress on the WRDA bill and generally support its provisions. But environmental groups contend some policy provisions would weaken key environmental laws.
"We're just really pleased that it's moving, given that it's been six years since the last WRDA," says Jim Walker, American Association of Port Authorities director of navigation policy and legislation.
Among the provisions that industry likes is a mandate that annual Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund spending equal its yearly income, from an import tax. The fund's spending-income gap produced an estimated $7-billion surplus as of last Sept. 30. John Doyle, special counsel for law and lobbying firm Jones Walker LLP, says the trust-fund provision would mean annual harbor-dredging spending could double, to between $1.5 billion and $1.6 billion.
The Senate bill also would authorize $500 million over five years for a Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) loan program for Corps and Environmental Protection Agency water projects. WIFIA is based on the 15-year-old TIFIA transportation program, and its $500 million in direct aid could support several times that amount in loans.
The bill seeks faster project delivery through deadlines for Corps studies and accelerated reviews. However, in a March 19 letter, eight environmental groups told the Senate committee, "The bill strikes at the core of the National Environmental Policy Act and the environmental review process by significantly tilting the scales of project/permit review towards approval regardless of the potential environmental impacts."
A House water-resources bill has not yet been introduced, but Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) calls WRDA his panel's "highest priority." One snag is the current earmark moratorium, which means "naming a project in a bill is not going to be allowed," he notes.
The Senate committee bill authorizes projects that have Army Chief of Engineers' reports completed, but it does not name any projects. The committee says 18 projects qualify for authorization so far. Shuster says if the House WRDA uses similar project language, it would mean Congress would be ceding "its constitutional authority to the executive branch, and we'll never get it back."