The Water Infrastructure Bill--Explained

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee took less than half an hour yesterday to mark up the $9.35 billion, 271-page Water Resources Development Act of 2016 and forward it to the full Senate on a 19-1 vote.

Infrastructure bills for highways, waterways and air transportation tend to be bipartisan thanks to project authorizations that spread the benefits to many congressional districts, even without official earmarks. WRDA 2016 (S. 2848) is no exception.


The bill would authorize billions of dollars in work on improvements and maintenance for ports, coastal navigation channels, river channels, canals, dams, locks and levees. It also has big provisions for ecosystem restoration projects and financial assistance for public drinking water and wastewater systems.


Ecosystem restoration projects have been a growing part of water infrastructure bills in recent years. WRDA 2016 would authorize more than $976 million for the next stage of Everglades restoration in southern Florida. It would approve more than $375 million for restoration of the Los Angeles River, often not much more than a dribble of water down a wide cement-lined culvert through the city. 

LA River Gold Line

(Los Angeles River in 2014. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

Flint, Mich., is the poster child for a financially stressed city in need of assistance to deal with lead contamination in drinking water. There is no earmark for Flint, but the approach taken by the Senate assures that money will be available for communities with drinking water systems in need of loans, loan guarantees or grants, which most notably will mean the city of Flint.

Some of the planned work reflects changes in international trade. Container ships keep getting bigger, requiring deeper and wider coastal channels and harbors. The Panama Canal widening project, estimated by the canal’s managers to be 97 percent complete, will soon be allowing bigger container ships to sail through the canal from Asia to the U.S. Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast ports, but only if the harbors and their entrance channels have sufficient width and depth.


The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is writing its own version of WRDA 2016 and may or may not include as much about ecosystem restoration and drinking water or wastewater systems as the Senate bill did. A House-Senate conference then will have to work out the differences, with the goal being a bill ready to send to the White House before the end of the year.


Even if both houses of Congress agree on a final bill, appropriations and state or local financial support are not guaranteed for any given project. As a result, Congress also has established a system for deauthorizing projects after they have been dormant for enough years.


I covered yesterday’s mark up in a story for Bloomberg BNA subscribers, Senate Committee Moves Water Infrastructure Bill Quickly.