Senate Passes Water Infrastructure Bill, Looks to House

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Alan Kovski and Ari Natter

Sept. 15 — The Senate passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (S. 2848) on a 95-3 vote Sept. 15 and now the action on water infrastructure legislation shifts to the House where floor consideration for its version of WRDA 2016 is expected next week.

Passage of the $9.35 billion Senate bill was welcomed by associations representing ports, drinking water utilities, wastewater agencies and local governments, reflecting the broad scope of the bill’s authorizations for projects and financial assistance affecting commerce and public health.

The bill would authorize 30 navigation, flood control and environmental restoration projects, traditional subjects for a WRDA bill. Unlike the House legislation, S. 2848 also would provide financial assistance for drinking water and wastewater systems, including the lead-contaminated water system of Flint, Mich.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he hoped to see a House-Senate conference organized quickly to resolve differences in the bills. Inhofe and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) led the effort to get the Senate version passed.

House Appears Ready to Go.

The House is expected to vote on its version of WRDA 2016 in the week of Sept. 19, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) told Bloomberg BNA. The House bill (H.R. 5303) will likely be taken up as a suspension vote, meaning no amendments will be offered to the bill, said Upton, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the main author of the House bill, said in an interview he hopes the House will go to conference with the Senate “and work the whole thing out.”

The $5 billion House bill is limited to the standard WRDA subjects of authorizations for projects involving the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers--limitations that also reflect the jurisdictional limits of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, chaired by Shuster.

Shuster issued a statement welcoming the Senate vote, acknowledging significant differences between the bills and saying, “We share the same goal of sending a WRDA bill to the President before the end of this Congress.”

Many members of the House are expected to welcome the drinking water and wastewater provisions included in the Senate bill. Disagreement was slight in the Senate. The only senators who voted against final passage of the bill were Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.).

Policy Changes Included.

The Senate bill would revamp Army Corps of Engineers policy so that local sponsors will be able to improve infrastructure at their own expense rather than waiting--possibly many years--for eventual funding of work by the corps.

The bill would establish a Federal Emergency Management Agency program to help states rehabilitate unsafe dams. There are 14,726 dams classified as having high hazard potential, Inhofe said on the Senate floor before passage of the bill.

Among the changes to the Clean Water Act in the Senate bill is a ban on the Environmental Protection Agency from using median household income as a gauge for paying sewer bills. The bill requires the EPA to update its 1987 affordability guidance based on recommendations of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The bill would allow states and municipalities to prioritize Clean Water Act mandates based on the greatest health threats for their communities and to do it on a schedule that will be affordable, Inhofe said.

Technical Assistance Program Authorized

Other changes include authorizing a technical assistance program of $75 million over a five-year period for small wastewater utilities and requiring that the clean water state revolving fund set aside 2 percent of its capitalization grants for small public wastewater systems.

The bill also would allow states to establish programs to implement the EPA’s coal ash regulations--a provision praised by the Edison Electric Institute, an association representing many of the nation’s electric utilities. And it would limit the EPA’s regulations concerning fuel spill prevention, control and countermeasures for farmers by exempting tanks for animal feed and fuel tanks with an aggregate capacity of up to 2,000 gallons on separate or remote parcels of property.

The Senate bill includes a variety of policy changes to help protect coastal areas. The American Shore and Beach Preservation Association welcomed the bill because of such provisions as giving the Corps of Engineers and states more flexibility in the beneficial use of dredged sediment.

“The placement of dredged sand and other sediment on beaches, dunes, and coastal wetlands can served multiple benefits, including flood and storm risk reduction, ecological restoration, and adaptation to sea level rise,” the group said.

The bill would direct the corps to consider all measures for coastal risk reduction, including natural, nonstructural and structural measures when developing projects.

Environmental Group Praises Measure

The Nature Conservancy praised the bill for pushing the corps to consider natural approaches to coastal risk reduction. Wetlands, natural floodplains, coastal dunes and ocean reefs all help reduce flood and storm damage, improve water quality and protect vital wildlife habitats, the group said.

Along with the policy changes, project authorizations and assistance programs, the bill would address various sore points involving water infrastructure or water pollution. Case in point: The EPA would be obligated to reimburse states, local governments and tribes for the costs they incurred in cleaning up the pollution caused by the 2015 discharge of wastewater that flowed into several states from the Gold King Mine in Colorado.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Kovski in Washington at and Ari Natter in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.