By Alan Kovski and Anthony Adragna
May 20 — The House agreed to the conference report on the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (H.R. 3080) on a 412-4 vote May 20.
WRRDA would authorize projects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers important to commerce and flood safety nationwide. The conference report, a compromise blend of the House and Senate versions of the legislation, is expected to face a vote in the Senate May 21 or 22.
During House floor discussion of the conference report, lawmakers from both parties were lavish with praise for the report and for what was repeatedly called bipartisan work.
The legislation would authorize projects to widen and deepen ports and coastal navigation panels; improve and replace locks, dams and levees on inland waterways; enhance dam safety; engage in ecosystem restoration projects, especially in wetlands; and enhance storm protective measures such as barrier sand dunes.
To speed up project studies and environmental reviews, the legislation would require more coordination and setting of deadlines among federal agencies. Even congressional critics of the environmental review streamlining spoke in favor of the conference report, though it dropped the 10-year sunset provision attached by the Senate to the environmental review streamlining.
Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and chief author of the House version of the legislation, said during the May 20 floor debate, “This is about economic growth. It is about jobs.”
Alluding to the bipartisan spirit of the work, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) said, “I think this is a blueprint on how Congress can move forward.”
The work on the water infrastructure bill helped prepare Congress for one of its next big tasks, the surface transportation bill, Shuster said. He said he “learned a lot of lessons” from work on WRRDA, and “we'll utilize all those lessons.”
The surface transportation bill is needed because its authorization will expire at the end of September, and its revenue stream for highway work may run short before then. A Senate committee approved a set of highway provisions May 15.
“The time is short,” Shuster said. “We're up on a deadline when the trust fund is going to run out of money sometime in July. So we've got to deal with that. Unfortunately, we may see the September [reauthorization target] date slip.”
The Congressional Budget Office estimated WRRDA as modified by the House-Senate conference would cost $5.4 billion over the 2015-2019 period.
The CBO scoring, released May 19, put that in perspective with cost estimates for the Senate and House versions of the legislation passed in 2013.
In April 2013, the CBO estimated the Senate version would cost $5.7 billion in its first five years. In October, the CBO estimated the House version would cost $3.5 billion in its first five years.
The House kept the cost of its version down partly by deauthorizing of moribund projects, and the House-Senate conference deauthorized still more while approving more projects.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) praised the work May 20 in advance of the House vote.
“This bill will help create jobs, will help strengthen our economy, and it's the first time that this bill's ever been produced where there are no earmarks in this bill,” Boehner said. “It's a significant policy achievement, and I'm going to pat Chairman Shuster on the back for a job well done.”
Several House members, including Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), praised the legislation in terms of protecting U.S. competitiveness in international commerce, in anticipation of deeper-draft ships that will transit the Panama Canal when the current expansion work on the canal is completed. The Boston Harbor Deep Draft Navigation Improvement Project is one of the projects to be authorized by the bill.
The economic benefits of projects that facilitate waterborne commerce were stressed throughout the work in both House and Senate on the bills last year and during the House-Senate conference work that began in November.
The conference report would expand those benefits by allowing more flexibility in projects. For decades, the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund has been spent on dredging ports to deepen and widen them, an activity especially important to East Coast and Gulf Coast ports that tend to silt up.
The conference report includes provisions saying that the harbor fund money also can be spent on dredging of berths and contaminated sediments, which will allow California ports that have little trouble with silt to use some of the money of the harbor fund.
Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.), whose district is in Southern California, said, “My ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles are pleased with this.” She has noted in the past that shippers using the two ports have paid large amounts of money into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund over the years without seeing benefits for those ports.
Flexibility also was added through provisions allowing nonfederal partners to start spending money before federal action and reimbursements are assured. The nonfederal partners won't be guaranteed to receive reimbursement or credit for their spending, but they will be assured of being eligible for such reimbursement or credit, assuming their spending was appropriate.
The legislation also requires more flexibility on the part of the Army Corps of Engineers in vegetation management on levees. It has been a sore point especially in areas where trees and other vegetation have grown along the levees and are valued for appearances and the strength their roots may add to the levees.
Two California lawmakers praised the allowances for flexibility in vegetation management. One of them also noted that a big levee project included in the bill is important to Sacramento.
The Natomas Levee Improvement Project, an ongoing project to protect Sacramento from river flooding, protects over 100,000 people, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) said. “Sacramento is the most at-risk American city for major flooding,” she said.
The legislation would allow more work to be done by the corps to limit the spread of Asian carp, an invasive species perceived as a great threat to Great Lakes fisheries and ecosystems.
Adam Kolton of the National Wildlife Federation singled out provisions for controlling the carp and restoring parts of coastal Louisiana and the Everglades as bright spots in the legislation. But environmental activists don't like the environmental streamlining, and they often oppose harbor and river channel projects as harmful to the environment.
“The bill approves billions of dollars of damaging projects,” Kolton said in a May 20 statement released by his group.
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The full House-Senate conference report on H.R. 3080, highlights and section-by-section summaries are available at http://transportation.house.gov/wrrda/conference.htm.
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