Photo by Billy Birdwell/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District
Among projects authorized in the new WRRDA is Savannah Harbor expansion, including dredging to deepen the entrance channel and inner harbor.

The Senate overwhelmingly has approved a major new water-resources measure that would authorize more than $12 billion in new Army Corps of Engineers civil works projects, launch a new federal loan program for Corps and Environmental Protection Agency projects and mandate faster Corps project reviews.

The Senate passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, or WRRDA, on May 22 by a 91-7 vote. That represented the final congressional action on the bill, which next will go to the White House for President Obama's expected signature.

The House had cleared the measure on May 20 by a 412-4 vote.

When signed, WRRDA would be the first comprehensive water-resources measure to become law since November 2007. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill's cost at $12.3 billion over 10 years.

WRRDA's prime Senate architect, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), said in a statement after the vote, "Our bill invests in vital water infrastructure that protects communities from flooding, maintains navigation routes for commerce and the movement of goods, restores vital ecosystems and provides a boost to our economy by creating jobs."

The measure' main House author, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), told his colleagues ishortly before his chamber's vote that the bill was "the most reform-driven [water-resources] bill in the last 20 years" and "the most fiscally responsible [WRRDA] bill in history."

Industry officials and construction unions welcomed the congressional action. Randy Over, American Society of Civil Engineers president, said in a statement that WRRDA's approval "is a defining moment for the nation's ports, inland waterways, dams, levees and clean-water infrastructure."

Sean McGarvey, president of North America's Building Trades Unions, called the House and Senate votes "an important first step" in tackiing needed infrastructure repairs and modernization. He urged Obama to sign WRRDA quickly and also to expedite approving other infrastructure measures.

WRRDA authorizes 34 new Corps projects, whose total federal share is about $15.6 billion, according to ENR's calculations. It also authorizes modifications for eight other projects, with $1.3 billion in total federal costs. CBO's estimate is lower than that, because it only reflects the projects' costs over the next 10 years. CBO notes that designing and building the projects will extend well beyond a decade.

By far the largest item on the list is Louisiana’s Morganza-to-the Gulf flood control project. Its estimated federal share is $6.7 billion.

House aides told reporters in a May 15 briefing that those new authorizations would be offset by deauthorizing $18 billion in inactive pre-2007 projects. But CBO did not count the deauthorizations as offsets in its cost estimate of the bill.

Although WRRDA lists which projects it authorizes, and includes their federal shares and total estimated costs, Shuster and other lawmakers maintain that the measure has no earmarks.

While the bill's authorizations are a positive step for the projects, they do not guarantee groundbreakings. Authorizations still are subject to annual appropriations and competition will be rugged for limited discretionary appropriations in fiscal 2015 and the foreseeable future.

Another key provision establishes a five-year pilot federal loan program, the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), for Corps and EPA water projects. The program, modeled on the Dept. of Transportation’s TIFIA program, aims to stretch federal dollars by leveraging nonfederal funds