Lawmakers on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee aren't pleased with the pace at which the Army Corps of Engineers is implementing last year's Water Resources Reform and Development Act.
The "T&I" committee's chairman, Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), was WRRDA's main architect in the House. And he made clear at a June 10 hearing that he wants the Corps to step up its followup work.
T&I's water resources and environment subcommittee timed the hearing to coincide with the first anniversary of WRRDA's enactment. [Link to Webcast of hearing; committee members' and witnesses' prepared statements]
Shuster noted that WRRDA passed last year with a substantial bipartisan majority and said that implementing the law is "something the Corps should take up with breakneck speed...."
Subcommittee Chairman Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) said that the panel had hoped that the Corps would have put more of a priority on the job of writing formal guidance documents for its staffers around the country on how to implement WRRDA's many provisions.
Gibbs said, "WRRDA is the law of the land. It is not a suggestion for the [Obama] administration to casually disregard."
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the Army's Chief of Engineers, acknowledged, "We got off to a little bit of a slower start than we would have liked. But we're moving out now."
Bostick said that the Corps had issued implementing guidance for about 38% of WRRDA's more than 200 provision. He said expected that figure to be up to 50% by the end of December.
Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant Army secretary for civil works, told the panel that the Corps has set up a "Tiger Team" composed of personnel from various district offices to get the guidance task completed.
Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) asked about the status of WRRDA's provision establishing a new federal loan program for Corps and Environmental Protection Agency water projects. It is called the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or WIFIA, and is modeled on the Transportation Dept.'s 14-year-old and now popular, TIFIA program.
So far, Congress has appropriated only $2.2 million for EPA to get WIFIA going but so far no money has been approved to support the envisioned loans.
Darcy said the Corps is working with EPA on a joint memorandum of understanding to outline how WIFIA would operate.
Bostick added that the Corps "will work this as aggressively as we can."
He and Darcy noted that the Corps historically has not been a loan-providing agency. Bostick said the Corps is analyzing how WIFIA would work with its traditional programs, learning about loan guarantees and discussing with EPA. He said he expected "some resolution" this summer.
Gibbs also highlighted a provision requiring the Corps to issue an annual report to Congress with a list of projects which Congress can use to authorize funds.
He noted that WRRDA sets criteria for including projects on the list and said the Corps' first report, submitted earlier this year, fell short of what the committee expected. Gibbs said too few projects were on the list and added that "the administration used this process as a way to promote their priorities and not those of their customers."
Shuster said the administration "seems to be misinterpreting" that part of the law. He said that the annual list was to include projects that are priorities of local sponsoring agencies and "reflect the needs of the nation." He added, "Instead, the administration chose to provide Congress with a list of the Corps'...priorities."
Darcy said that for the second annual report, the Corps has issued more guidance and made some changes from last year. "I think we made it clearer about what's needed in the [project sponsors'] proposals in order for us to consider them," she said.
Darcy noted that with the first report, there were inconsistencies in cost estimates that some project sponsors submitted. For example, some included cost estimates for project studies but not for construction.
She also said Corps division and district commanders have been asked to work closely with potential project sponsors, this time around, before they submit proposals.
EPA WIFIA funding corrected on 6/16/15