An Important Step Toward Better U.S. Water Policy

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed S.601, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2013. WRDA is the legislation that allows U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) projects — like dams, flood control structures, navigation on inland waters, harbor dredging, and environmental restoration — to get funding and move forward.

Passage of WRDA legislation used to be routine. A bill was done every 2-3 years, driven politically by individual Representatives and Senators adding more and more projects to the list of things authorized to be done. Appropriations for all this construction could not keep up. There are now $60 billion in authorized but unfunded Corps projects. Not all of these projects continue to be priorities for construction and, when taken together, do not represent anything like a coherent water resource investment strategy for America.

In addition to the backlog of authorized but unfunded projects, much of our country’s water resource infrastructure is badly in need of repair, and many of the policies governing USACE operations, including how those projects are funded, have become badly out of date.

It is in this context that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) drafted WRDA 2013 which became Senate Bill S. 601 — the first WRDA bill since 2007. Committee Chair, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Member, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) worked across party lines to address some of the key issues raised by the past system of selecting and approving water projects. Among the provisions of S. 601 that we at The Nature Conservancy think begin to move the country toward more science-based and cost-effective water investment policy are sections in S. 601 that:

  • Encourage planning on a watershed basis to improve the ability of the Corps to  develop, and operate water resource projects in an integrated and comprehensive manner and ensure that investments in new infrastructure  provide a broader range of benefits for the America people;
  • Facilitate adjustments to the operation of existing dams to better serve multiple purposes, including restoring rivers to a healthier condition, while not adversely impacting  the original purposes for those dams;
  • Ensure that the Corps offsets the environmental damage caused by some water resource projects with restoration of previously degraded areas like salt marshes and freshwater wetlands;
  • Provide peer review of proposed projects and establish a mechanism for de-authorizing projects and facilities that no longer serve a useful purpose or that no longer merit federal funding ;
  • Explore new funding sources for the backlog of water projects that include participation by states and the private sector;
  • Strengthen support for and improve the restoration of natural systems and the broader use of “natural infrastructure,” where appropriate, as a component of water management  activities like flood control and storm protection;
  • Better enable non-federal sponsors of Corps projects, like The Nature Conservancy, to assist in undertaking restoration of floodplains, streams, coastlines and wetlands;
  • Increase the funding levels for ongoing Corps projects including  the programs focused on environmental improvement and restoration (“Continuing Authority Programs”);
  • Continue the restoration of the Everglades and Chesapeake Bay and begin planning for restoration along the Northeast coast affected by Hurricane Sandy, and;
  • Establishes a National Endowment for the Oceans which, in time, can provide scientific support to make better decisions about the use of coastal areas.

Not all of the bill’s features are so positive. Although the evidence is clear that the backlog of authorized projects and “start and stop” funding for such projects are the primary cause of delays in Corps water resource activities, the EPW Committee added provisions that attempt to address delays in project implementation by speeding up USACE project feasibility studies and  environmental and permit reviews. TNC had strong concerns about this part of the bill as originally drafted. Before the final vote in the Senate, however, the EPW Committee’s leadership made important changes to the bill that ensured that federal agencies will retain their autonomy and an appropriate role in the timing and content of the review process and that sunset this new review process after ten years.

In light of the many policy advances in the bill and the action of the Senate in retaining critical elements of the permitting and environmental review process, The Nature Conservancy supported final passage of S. 601. While we did not and do not agree with every provision in the bill, we believe that S. 601 is an important step forward toward better U.S. water policy.

The House of Representatives, where there is also dissatisfaction with the current system of planning for and implementing water resource projects and programs, will now take up its version of WRDA. The Nature Conservancy will try to convince House members that, building on those positive changes to water policy contained in the Senate version of WRDA, they can also produce a bill that will help to reshape America’s water policy to be more cost-effective, to recognize the value of floodplains, wetlands, and coastal features in managing water resources, and to reconcile the need for water infrastructure with the long term health of America’s waterways.

[Image: Bill Williams River in Arizona is involved in a partnership between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Conservancy to improve the health of rivers by changing the operations of Corps dams. The river’s corridor contains the last remaining native woodland habitat of any size along the lower Colorado River. Image source: Tana Kappel/TNC]

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