Water Bill Faces Last-Minute Conflict Over California Drought

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By Alan Kovski and Brian Dabbs

Dec. 5 — A deal to pass a compromise version of the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 threatened to come unraveled Dec. 5 as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she would block the bill on the Senate floor because of California drought response provisions.

The impending deal on WRDA raised the promise of the bill being completed before Congress adjourns this month—and then Boxer’s announcement raised the possibility that no WRDA will pass this year.

The compromise on the bill incorporates much that the Senate included in its version of the bill (S. 2848), a more expansive and expensive bill than the House version (H.R. 5303). The financial aid authorized in response to Flint, Mich., drinking water contamination will amount to $170 million, less than the $220 million in the Senate bill.

The deal was put together as a House amendment to an unrelated bill, S. 612, by removing the original content of the bill and substituting the text of the WRDA compromise with a new name, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act.

The complexity and disagreements could explain why the House Rules Committee scheduled two meetings on the bill, Dec. 6 at 3 p.m. and Dec. 7 at 3 p.m., meaning the bill will not be able to reach the floor of the House before late afternoon Dec. 7. That in turn could mean the Senate will not be able to complete its consideration of the bill, following House passage, until after Dec. 9.

Boxer Denounces Provisions

Sticking points in negotiations included the California drought provisions, the Flint-related elements, and a provision to require the use of domestic iron and steel in drinking water system improvements using federal funds.

Boxer termed the water management provisions that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) supported a “poison pill” that would “roll back” the Endangered Species Act. She said she would use every tool at her disposal to stop it, which at this stage could mean a filibuster.

She also was troubled by provisions to revise dam projects, with a state able to exclude federal participation in projects constructed, operated and maintained by the state. “It says, contrary to current law, Congress will no longer need to authorize new dams all over this country,” she said.

“I don’t personally think Mitch McConnell is going to bring this up because he knows it’s going to take days and days and days and days because I have enough people to help me,” Boxer said, referring to the Senate majority leader, a Kentucky Republican.

“I don’t think he’ll bring it up,” Boxer said. “I don’t think he’ll bring it up, and if he does, we’ll be here until Christmas and New Year’s Eve.”

McCarthy Defends Agreement

McCarthy released a statement defending the California water provisions as an agreement reached with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) after years of hard work.

“The agreement could not have been finalized without Senator Dianne Feinstein, and I am proud to have worked with her on this legislation,” McCarthy said.

The provisions include a direction that the federal Bureau of Reclamation pump water for human and agricultural uses at the high end of the range allowed by regulatory protections to protect endangered species in California.

Acknowledging that Feinstein reached agreement with McCarthy, Boxer said of Feinstein, “We have a big disagreement on this. We just don’t see it the same way.”

Cost Factors Troubled House

A basic problem for many House lawmakers was the $9.35 billion cost of the Senate bill, far above the $5 billion of the version taken to the floor of the House in September. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, had to manage disagreement within Republican ranks.

“It caused Shuster trouble with tea party conservatives,” said Mike Toohey, president of the Waterways Council, a group of water transportation users.

Toohey told Bloomberg BNA that the House should have a lot of leverage in determining the final content of the bill, given that most House members will still be around in January after Boxer has retired.

But Toohey hoped to see the bill pass in 2016. Like Shuster and many other stakeholders and lawmakers, he considered it important for WRDA authorizations to return to a schedule of every two years.

Port operators were pleased with the deal unveiled Dec. 5. Ports would receive potentially billions more in federal funding to deepen their navigation channels to internationally competitive levels and would get steadily increasing amounts of money from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, according to the American Association of Port Authorities.

—With assistance from Brandon Ross

To contact the reporters on this story: Brian Dabbs in Washington at bdabbs@bna.com; Alan Kovski in Washington at akovski@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The compromise deal on the Water Resources Development Act is available at http://ow.ly/w16w306Qitn.

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