December 13, 2016

Open the Floodgates? WRDA Shows Congress Ready to Act on Water Policy, Infrastructure Projects

In the bipartisan Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which the Senate approved on December 9, Congress addressed major issues in the nation’s water infrastructure, including direct efforts aimed at problems related to drought and contamination. However, the procedural aspects of the bill’s passage also indicate that Congress views water policy as an issue of growing importance—creating an opportunity for those involved in United States water-related projects.

Water Resources Development Act

Despite a small dustup over language added to the bill at the last minute, Congress overwhelmingly passed the WRDA, which has now been rolled into the larger Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN). The bill, which will be the last major piece of legislation to be passed and eventually signed by President Obama, is the first significant overhaul of water policy in years, having been expanded well beyond the usual scope of a WRDA bill into a near-$12 billion package that includes aid for Flint, Michigan to address the lead contamination crisis from earlier this year and drought-related measures relevant to the West, in addition to typical allocations for efforts to improve infrastructure and streamline administrative processes related to WRDA projects.

Flint Aid/Lead Contamination Aid

The bill authorizes the funding for infrastructure improvements included in the stopgap budget passed last week, allowing for $170 million in infrastructure improvements and aid for Flint, Michigan, and other affected communities, where contaminated drinking water has led to a crisis that’s been debated in the Capitol for several months now. The funding will assist communities in replacing corroded water pipes and improving filtration systems to provide clean drinking water. Among these funds, $100 million is authorized under the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund capitalization grants program and $20 million from the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act.

Western Drought

One of the sticking points that initially caused delay in passage of the bill—language addressing the Western drought—was ultimately included in the bill. That language relaxes some environmental regulations in Southern California and allows for water to be diverted to the region for agricultural and other community uses, while providing for support for storage projects, conservation efforts, and improvements in efficiency and water recycling programs. The bill allows water from the Sacramento-San Juan River Delta to be used by farmers on millions of acres—provided the water is not used during the spawning season for salmon that use the river to reach traditional reproductive areas. The bill also allocates $350 million for new storage projects.

Army Corps of Engineers

Thirty new project authorizations are included in the bill, to be carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers. The projects address navigation, harbor and port improvements, flood control and environmental restoration. Projects include hurricane risk-reduction measures in Louisiana, ecosystem restoration in the Everglades, flood management on the American River in California, navigation improvements for the Charleston Harbor in South Carolina, and similar improvements to the ports in Corpus Christi, Texas. The Corps has also been instructed to identify $10 billion worth of projects that are no longer feasible or necessary, to be deauthorized. The Corps will also develop a pilot program for commercial operators to remove sediment from federally operated reservoirs, and to establish an electronic permitting system to modernize the permitting and comment process currently used. Funds are also authorized for high-hazard dam repair—a response to the Gold King Mine accident in Colorado that took place after a structurally obsolete dam failure polluted the Animas River in Colorado in 2015.

Streamlining Provisions

The bill streamlines the process of approving modification of existing projects that are already underway by the Corps, and makes it easier for non-federal partnerships to carry out portions of certain projects in advance of Corps action (allowing them to be compensated by the Corps afterward). It also allows for local partners to gain approval to implement water projects that have already been commissioned by the Corps, expanding the opportunity to contribute goods and services to Corps projects. The bill also allows states to combine federal funds granted in multistate projects, which was previously not allowed.

Water Infrastructure

Water infrastructure includes a wide variety of harbors, levees, dams, reservoirs, pipelines, canals and other items essential to delivery, storage, filtration and other beneficial uses of water resources. The bill authorizes $335 million for dam expansion projects in 17 states classified as “reclamation states”; $100 million for water management, 50 percent of which will be directed toward the Upper Colorado River; $50 million to support water recycling and reuse grants funding; and $30 million for desalination efforts that qualify for federal cost sharing. The bill also allocates $300 million annually from 2017-2021 for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which includes harbor, navigation, fisheries and other environmental restoration efforts. In a similar initiative, $415 million has been authorized for the Lake Tahoe Restoration Project.

Other Provisions

The bill includes a few other major provisions, such as permitting reforms for “fly ash,” otherwise known as coal combustion residuals, which can be recycled into ingredients used in building materials but have been stuck in regulatory limbo due to their contamination potential if mishandled. The measure allows state regulators to provide oversight of the regulation and handling of the material. Additionally, the bill includes infrastructure assistance for tribal territory in an effort to bring much-needed improvements in access to clean water in certain Indian reservations. Finally, the bill reiterates the will of Congress that WRDA Reauthorization should take place, at minimum, during every Congress (every two years) to ensure that funding is being utilized effectively and new projects can be included for future iterations.

Conclusion

This year’s WRDA was an exceptional effort by the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee, as well as others, to address exceptional water-related issues that emerged over the past several years. While rolling the WRDA into the larger WIIN Act was largely a procedural move to preserve the traditional scope of the reauthorization—primarily for Corps activities and infrastructure projects—it also represents the growing importance of water-related legislation and funding needs. As infrastructure ages and needs to be replaced, more communities will face the need to rebuild drinking water delivery systems, and California’s drought struggle will continue to provide hydrologic uncertainty into the future. While the bill will maintain a predictable focus, any number of other issues related to the growing importance of water policy will find their way into future packages, creating tremendous opportunity for those involved in a wide variety of water projects all over the U.S.

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