Guest Column: Water Resources Reform and Development Act

By Olivia Dorothy
Regional Conservation Coordinator, Upper Mississippi River Initiative

This week, the U.S. House circulated the first draft of their Water Resources Reform and Development Act. The Senate passed their version in May over loud objections from the environmental and conservation communities for sections of the bill that greatly reduced the effectiveness of the National Environmental Policy Act by fining agencies that could not meet arbitrary deadlines set by the Corps of Engineers.

The House version of the bill is not as damaging as the Senate’s version. But it still contains provisions to “streamline” and “accelerate” environmental review, and that faster timeline will cause managers to overlook environmental components as they try to complete more projects, with less staff and resources.

Unlike the Senate bill, environmental and natural resource agencies will not be fined, and they will have greater involvement in the planning process from the beginning. However, the House version does contain troubling language requiring all issues that may result in permit denial be resolved. This significantly erodes environmental and natural resource agencies’ authority to deny outright the bad projects that cannot be mitigated.

The Senate federalized the Olmsted Locks and Dam project, adding roughly $1.5 billion to taxpayer debt, plus the cost of all future overruns, which seem to be limitless, since this project is already 300 percent over budget. The House did not go as far. It limits the industry contributions for the project to only 25 percent of the annual expense, instead of the 50 percent mandated by the Water Resources Development Act of 1986, which created the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.

The Trust Fund was established to finance half of all construction and rehabilitation expenses for the inland waterways. But it is bankrupt today, limiting inland waterways investment to only about $160 annually. Proposals to address this funding shortfall range from increasing federal subsidies to imposing new users’ fees at locks to raising the tax on barge fuel that funds the Trust today. The House proposes to establish new committees — composed of industry, federal agencies and other stakeholders — to evaluate the proposals and develop a path forward for inland waterways financing. They also propose to increase industry involvement and oversight during the project planning and construction, which will create new biases for industry pet projects.

Some of the Trust Fund trouble originates in the shocking $60 billion backlog of projects that are authorized but unfunded. The House proposes to deauthorize every project authorized before 2007 if Congress has neglected to appropriate funds for the past seven years. The House expects this will reduce the backlog by at least $12 billion.

To further keep the costs low, the House authorizes very few new projects. But it does permit industry-pushed programs to spend down the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. These programs will mandate coastal harbors, dredging operations to the authorized depth, despite the harbors’ level of use. This will cost billions in matching general treasury funds and damage fragile coastal ecosystems needlessly.

Like the Senate bill, the House version generally lacks environmental restoration and protection measures. And it totally neglects green infrastructure as an alternative, and oftentimes cheaper and more effective, tool for flood risk reduction. Even with these significant shortfalls, the House bill overall is more responsible than the Senate version passed in May. It is hoped the members of Congress will be more responsive than the Senate to improve the bill during the coming months of debate.

From the Sept. 18-24, 2013, issue

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