Special Report: Water Resources Bill Draws Interest From Cities, Utilities, Industries

By Alan Kovski and Rachel Leven  

Oct. 18 --The forces driving the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013 (H.R. 3080) can be seen in the large array of cities, counties, utilities and industries hoping to see the bill become law.

At least 496 nonprofit organizations, companies, state and local governments and other entities have disclosed their lobbying efforts on WRRDA, set for floor action in the House Oct. 23.

The number of lobbying groups is probably higher, as a Bloomberg BNA compilation of data included only groups that specifically cited the House or Senate bills in their disclosure forms, instead of general descriptions such as “water resources bills.”

The compilation, “Who Lobbied on WRDA and Why,” lists the entities and provisions of the legislation in which they are interested.

The bill's authorization of water infrastructure projects involving the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can mean large numbers of jobs, millions of dollars for local governments, protection from floods, and support for waterborne commerce supporting the economies of cities, counties and industries from coast to coast.

The House bill would authorize projects to build or repair dams, locks and levees and to maintain or deepen river channels, canals and harbors. It also would speed up environmental reviews, give local partners more influence in projects and more credit for early spending on projects, and revise the way projects are selected and advanced--all elements putting the “reform” in the title.

Entities from unions to municipalities disclosed lobbying on a variety of policy changes and projects within the House and Senate bills. Groups lobbied on existing or new local flood-control infrastructure and other water and wastewater projects, while others focused on environmental streamlining provisions and water infrastructure financing programs.

The legislation would succeed the Water Resources Development Act of 2007 (H.R. 1495; Pub. L. No. 110-114), a $23 billion bill that was passed over the veto of former President George W. Bush.

The House Rules Committee completed its work preparing the bill Oct. 22 so that it could be taken up by the full House the following day. Lobbyists say a House-Senate conference could produce a final version within a few months (see related story).

Senate Bill Passed in May

The Senate on May 15 passed its version of the bill, the Water Resources Development Act of 2013 (S. 601), on an 83-14 vote .

The $12.2 billion Senate bill has a different mix of reforms and contented itself with a single “R” in WRDA. Members of Congress in both houses have not indicated they will dig in their heels on the differences.

“I don't see them going and getting into big fights,” said Thane Young, a vice president of Van Scoyoc Associates. His company is registered to lobby on behalf of a number of cities, water districts and other entities concerned about flood protection and harbor improvements.

California Has Flood, Harbor Concerns

Among the states with intense concern about floods and harbors is California, which brings the weight of that congressional delegation to support the legislation. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) was a leader in writing the Senate bill as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

“Sacramento is probably one of the most flood-prone cities in the country,” Young said.

Flood insurance rates are going through the roof, Young told Bloomberg BNA. Localities judged to be on a flood plain may have to wait many years for an Army Corps of Engineers project to protect them, and during those years, the flood insurance costs and development restrictions can be very costly, Young said.

California's reliance on levees also helps explain why the otherwise obscure issue of levee vegetation has contributed to the state delegation's interest in passage of a bill. The legislation is expected to require the corps to show more flexibility on management of trees and other vegetation on levees, an issue that combined safety, environmental, financial and aesthetic considerations.

“I think that's one of the issues we've seen consensus on,” Young said.

23 New Projects in House Bill

The House bill would authorize 23 new projects, some of them the next stages in complex long-running existing projects, such as Everglades restoration in Florida.

Four of the 23 projects are for Everglades restoration and nearby wetlands management and draw the support of a coalition of 16 counties in Florida represented in the lobbying effort by Alcalde & Fay Associates. The combined state and federal spending on the four projects would amount to more than $1.8 billion, the spending equally split between the federal government and local sponsors.

Jim Davenport, a partner in Alcalde & Fay, illustrated the projects' importance in terms of jobs by noting that one of the 16 counties, Hendry, has an unemployment rate near 14 percent, the highest in Florida.

Everglades restoration has been going on for many years and could take decades more, Davenport said. It will be important to the environment as well as local communities, he said.

The 23 new projects in the House bill include six in Florida (the Everglades restoration and wetlands management projects, plus Jacksonville Harbor and Canaveral Harbor); three in North Carolina (Neuse River Basin,Surf City and North Topsail Beach, and West Onslow Beach and New River Inlet); two in California (San Clemente shoreline and American River Watershed-Sacramento area); two in Louisiana (Barataria Basin Barrier and a coastal project); one Louisiana-Texas combined project (Sabine Neches Waterway); one Minnesota-North Dakota combined project (Fargo-Moorhead metro area); and one project each in Georgia (Savannah Harbor), Iowa (Cedar River), Kansas (Topeka metro area), Kentucky (Ohio River shoreline), Maryland (Mid-Chesapeake Bay island), Minnesota (Marsh Lake), Mississippi (coastal improvement) and Texas (Freeport Harbor).

Speeding Up Environmental Analyses

Both the House and Senate bills include provisions for speeding up environmental analyses, which environmental activists oppose and which draw some criticism from Democrats.

However, the importance of the bill to large delegations such as those of California and Florida has won the support of many Democrats who might be uncomfortable with the pressure to accelerate analyses, Davenport acknowledged.

Some Democrats have suggested the drag effect of environmental analyses is exaggerated, and that slow feasibility studies and inadequate funding cause the most delays. Young said an observer could see an inverse relationship during WRRDA markup between worries about environmental protection and hopes for a project--the worries generally being expressed by lawmakers without projects in their districts.

“I hear about these cases all the time, where the environmental review process is very time-consuming,” Young said.

Some Projects Must Wait

Despite all the lobbying efforts, many local projects probably will be left out of the current legislation, and numerous entities will have to defer their hopes and lobbying efforts to the next water resources bill, possibly in two years.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a primary author of the House bill, is insisting that the House will get back to “regular order,” passing a new water resources bill every two years.

That strategy means hopeful communities and their representatives may not have to wait as long as in the past for another chance at a project authorization. Since the Water Resources Development Act of 2007 was enacted, the current wait has been six years.

This time around, Philadelphia lobbied for Congress to authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to release water from the Francis E. Walter dam during extreme droughts to provide additional water downstream, where Philadelphia withdraws water from the Delaware River. The authorization is not included in the current House bill.

“The concern, primarily during an extreme drought in the Delaware River, is that the salt line would move up the Delaware and get to near where our intakes are,” Andrew Stober, spokesman for the Philadelphia mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities, told Bloomberg BNA. “So we want to keep the flow of freshwater in the Delaware strong enough that it's keeping the salt line further downstream.”

Likewise, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, among the busiest in the nation, will see little or no benefit from the pending water resources bills. California ports tend to be free of silting problems requiring dredging, but they have hopes of seeing more flexibility introduced into spending authorizations, so they might use harbor maintenance funds for other port-related work.

Budget cycles create worries even for localities that see their projects in the water infrastructure bills. Davenport said a bill signed into law in 2013 could allow the corps to budget the newly approved projects into a fiscal year 2015 spending request, but if the bill is delayed until spring of 2014, it could mean the projects would have to wait until fiscal year 2016 for a start.

Local Influence, Local Credit

The water resources bills take some steps toward increasing the influence of local partners in projects and giving them more credit for early spending on projects.

“It's important to us that we be able to strengthen the positions of the nonfederal partners,” Van Scoyoc's Young said. “All too often, we're partners but not equal partners.”

For his clients, that includes such things as vegetation management on levees. His clients also want to get credit for their spending, often in advance of federal spending.

Spending commonly is split 50-50 between local and federal partners. Local partners often spend money faster than the Army Corps of Engineers can, and they need credit later for their additional earlier spending, Young said. Some credit is given, but there are disagreements over the expenditures meriting credit.

The pending bills would improve the crediting of local expenditures to some extent, although not as much as state and local partner governments wish, Young said. Still, there would be progress from the perspective of his clients.

“That one is critically important to us,” Young said.


To contact the reporters on this story: Alan Kovski in Washington at akovski@bna.com and Rachel Leven in Washington at rleven@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Sullivan at jsullivan@bna.com