Drought Provisions Make Water Resources Bill Future Uncertain

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By Rachel Leven, Dean Scott and Alan Kovski

Dec. 6 — A water resources bill nearing the finish line may meet roadblocks after the House released its compromise version containing controversial California drought and water rights provisions.

The bill that includes desperately needed aid for Flint, Mich., and other communities with water emergencies caused by lead contamination or other issues could also face delays, should one Republican senator follow through on her threat of placing a hold on it.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), however, said holds were unlikely.

“There isn’t time for holds,” Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, told Bloomberg BNA. “The only alternative is not to pass it.”

The bill, formerly known as the Water Resources Development Act of 2016, could get a vote as early as Dec. 8, Inhofe said. But some were less optimistic about that timing, saying Congress may need to remain in Washington past the Dec. 9 date on which Republicans had hoped they could adjourn for the year.

At midnight on Dec. 9, the current spending bill that funds the government expires. The House Rules Committee is set to meet on the water resources bill on Dec. 7 at 3 p.m.

The Compromise Bill

The compromise bill that is now called the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (S. 612) goes beyond the typical authorization of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects.

It not only authorizes water infrastructure projects, but also lays out $170 million in aid for communities with drinking water-related emergency declarations. The clear candidate for obtaining those grants, loans and other money is the city that has been suffering through a crisis caused by lead contamination in its drinking water—Flint.

Additionally, the bill would allow states to establish permit programs for coal combustion residuals and would give them the flexibility to either incorporate EPA standards or develop other criteria at least as protective. And it would instruct the Environmental Protection Agency to process claims of injury from the Gold King mine spill, a pollution disaster caused by an EPA contractor in Colorado trying to shore up an abandoned mine.

Also included is language to address California’s drought that Senate Environment and Public Works Ranking Member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) Dec. 6 called a “poison pill.” She claims the language would be an end-run around the Endangered Species Act. That is one among other contentious additions and retractions to the legislation.

Fight, Flight or Vote

At this point, the outlook for the water resources bill remains unclear. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said at a press conference Dec. 6 that he hopes to pass the water resources bill this session, and Inhofe separately seemed to be on the same page.

But Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told reporters Dec. 6 she is considering placing a hold on the water resources bill to buy more time to bring her major energy bill (S. 2012) across the finish line.

And while it isn’t clear whether Senate Democrats are unifying in opposition to the water resources bill—it does include the long sought-after authorization for Flint aid—minority leaders criticized the package at their Dec. 6 press conference.

For example, the Democrats oppose changes related to requirements for localities to use American-produced iron and steel to repair or replace their water infrastructure. For other Democrats such as Boxer, the California drought provisions are a non-starter.

Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, told reporters Dec. 6 that the administration also doesn’t support the California-related proposal. He warned that Republicans shouldn’t use the drought proposal to hurt the water resources bill’s prospects—asserting that if the bill doesn’t pass it could be looked at as Republicans backing out of their promise “made to the people of Flint to provide resources to address the situation with the water supply in Flint, Michigan.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member, expressed concern about the bill’s prospects..“I don’t think anyone is even letting WRDA [the water resources bill] come up in the Senate, so I guess if people want to stay here for a really long time—but I’m not even sure it is going to come up,” she told Bloomberg BNA.

Perfect Versus Realistic

These disputes don’t necessarily signify the death of the bill. For example, Earnest said the White House is still reviewing the bill and will consider it “in its totality.”

And Inhofe indicated optimism—even though he said he was on Boxer’s side when it comes to the House’s last minute insertion of the drought language. He said enough Democrats would vote for the bill to get the water resources legislation across the finish line with the controversial provisions in tow.

There isn’t the time or the will in the House to get the language out, so the bill needs to be passed as is, Inhofe said. He emphasized the importance of the bill as it authorizes Flint aid that could then be appropriated by Congress through the continuing resolution. House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers introduced a short-term continuing resolution (H.R. 2028) Dec. 6 to fund the government until April 28, 2017. The legislation also contains funding for emergency disaster relief.

“They shouldn’t have been put in,” Inhofe said of the drought language. “I don’t know why they [the House] did it.”

He added, “I guess they did it because they knew that the bill is a kind of must-pass bill.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Rachel Leven in Washington, D.C. at rleven@bna.com; Dean Scott in Washington DC at DScott@bna.com; Alan Kovski in Washington at akovski@bna.comTo contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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