By Jay Landers

Looking to continue the congressional tradition of passing critical water resources legislation every two years, key committees in the House and Senate recently approved separate versions of a new Water Resources Development Act. Commonly known as WRDA, the legislation sets policies and authorizes projects to be carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Despite their differences, the bills would direct the Corps to take certain steps to address risks associated with climate change and assess the need for improvements to its levees and dams.

Bipartisan support in the House and Senate for water resources legislation bodes well for efforts to finalize a Water Resources Development Act by year’s end.

Bipartisan support

In the House, WRDA legislation (H.R. 7776) was introduced on May 16 by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Reflecting its bipartisan nature, H.R. 7776 was co-sponsored by Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., the committee’s ranking member.

Also co-sponsoring the bill were Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., the chair of the committee’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment, and Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., the ranking member of the subcommittee. On May 18, the full Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a markup for the legislation, approving it by voice vote.

The committee’s approval of the House bill occurred two weeks after the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works unanimously passed S. 4136, the Senate WRDA bill, on May 4. The legislation was introduced the same day by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the chair of the committee. Co-sponsors of the bipartisan bill included Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., the committee’s ranking member, and committee members Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.

In terms of project authorizations, H.R. 7776 would authorize the construction of 16 new projects and modifications of three existing projects. By comparison, S. 4136 would authorize the Corps to construct 17 new projects and modify four existing projects. Among their project authorizations, both bills include a massive plan to reduce hurricane and storm damage and conduct ecosystem restoration along the Texas coast, an effort that is expected to cost the federal government $19.2 billion.

Meanwhile, H.R. 7776 would authorize 72 new feasibility studies, modify eight existing feasibility studies, and direct the Corps to expedite the completion of 15 ongoing feasibility studies. S. 4136 would authorize only 27 feasibility studies while modifying nine existing feasibility studies and directing the Corps to expedite the completion of 25 ongoing feasibility studies.

Coping with climate change

The lead sponsors of both bills maintained that their legislation would better position the United States to address climate change. H.R. 7776 “meets the challenge of climate change by rebuilding and maintaining critical navigation jetties and breakwaters to dimensions necessary to address sea level rise and extreme weather,” DeFazio said during the May 18 markup. “From studying the impacts of coastal storms on inland flooding to addressing the future water supply needs of the arid West, this bill works to make communities more resilient.”

For his part, Carper noted that his bill would help Delaware and other coastal states adapt to changing conditions in the future. “We are particularly proud that our legislation better equips the Army Corps to address the threat that climate change poses to our coastal communities,” Carper said during his committee’s May 4 markup of the bill, according to a transcript provided by the committee.

In fact, both the House and Senate bills include language authorizing the Corps to conduct projects to protect and restore coastal shorelines and riverbanks. Citing predictions of sea level rise accelerating in the coming decades, Carper said that S. 4136 “reestablishes the protection and restoration of shorelines and riverbanks from erosion and other damaging forces as a primary mission of the Army Corps,” according to the transcript. “Our bill also streamlines the implementation of shoreline and riverbank protection and restoration projects to aid the communities most vulnerable to climate change impacts, and just as significantly, it empowers communities to partner with the Corps to develop projects that directly address the impact of extreme weather, including drought.”

Support for both bills

For its part, ASCE is happy with the progress to date by both chambers in developing WRDA legislation, says Caroline Sevier, the Society’s director of government relations. “We are pleased to see that both the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee as well as the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee are maintaining the commitment to keep this on a biennial schedule as well as keeping it bipartisan,” Sevier says. “We think that’s pretty critical.”

Although different in many respects, the House and Senate WRDA bills each have their strengths, Sevier notes. “We do support both pieces of legislation,” she says. “There are a lot of things in both the Senate bill as well as the House bill that we’re happy to see.”

For example, the Senate bill includes a provision to adjust the share of costs for the construction and major rehabilitation of navigation projects funded by the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. The IWTF receives funds raised by a tax on commercial barge fuel used on federally designated waterways.

Currently, federal funding for the construction and major rehabilitation of these navigation projects comprises 65% general revenues and 35% IWTF funds. S. 4136 would alter this arrangement, raising the share of general revenues to 75% for such projects and requiring only 25% funding from the IWTF. No such provision exists in the House bill.

This adjustment to the cost share for projects funded in part by the IWTF would “facilitate projects to improve inland waterways, which serve as vital economic drivers,” said Emily Feenstra, ASCE’s chief policy and external affairs officer, in a May 3 letter to Carper and Capito.

Levee and dam safety

The House and Senate bills are mixed in terms of two other ASCE priorities, reauthorization of the National Levee Safety Program and the National Dam Safety Program. Both programs are scheduled to expire at the end of fiscal year 2023.

Although the House bill would reauthorize the National Levee Safety Program through FY 2026, its Senate counterpart has no corresponding language, Sevier says. Meanwhile, neither bill would reauthorize the National Dam Safety Program. “We were hoping to see the (dam safety) program reauthorized as part of WRDA,” Sevier says. “We are still hoping to see it reauthorized as part of this WRDA bill.”

Assuming both bills pass their respective chambers and go to conference, ASCE “will push to make sure that the authorization for the National Levee Safety Program remains in there as well as continue to push for the National Dam Safety Program to be reauthorized,” Sevier says.

Among other policy provisions, both bills would direct the Corps to establish and maintain a national inventory of low-head dams. These relatively small structures typically span entire waterways and can generate dangerous hydraulic conditions at certain flow levels, resulting in approximately 50 fatalities annually in the United States.

The House bill would require that the Corps assess all levees it has constructed to identify opportunities to increase their flood-risk reduction benefits, achieve greater flood resiliency, and restore hydrological and ecological connections with adjacent flood plains. The legislation also would direct the Corps to assess the dams it operates or maintains to determine any that “may be priority for rehabilitation, environmental performance enhancements, or retrofits to add or replace power generation,” according to H.R. 7776.

Similarly, the Senate bill would direct the Corps to assess opportunities “to increase the development of hydroelectric power” at its existing hydroelectric projects and “develop new hydroelectric power” at its nonpowered water resources development projects, according to S. 4136.

Optimistic outlook

Although much work remains to be done to finalize a WRDA bill, committee passage of the bipartisan bills is a key step toward that goal. Both chambers now must pass their versions of the legislation, after which any differences between the bills would have to be resolved in conference. Assuming the conference participants can resolve their differences, the resulting compromise legislation then would have to be approved by both the House and Senate before it could go to the president for his signature.

During the May 18 markup of H.R. 7776, DeFazio said he expected the WRDA bill to come to a vote on the House floor in June.

The Senate leadership has indicated that S. 4136 potentially could be brought to the floor by the end of May, though this could be delayed as a result of other legislative priorities, Sevier says.

However, the outlook is optimistic for WRDA legislation to become law this year, Sevier says. “We’re feeling confident that (Congress is) going to keep to this every-other-year schedule, especially with bipartisan bills in both chambers,” she says.