Under Democratic-leadership, the 110th Congress is on the verge of passing the first authorization bill for our nation’s principal water infrastructure program, the Water Resources Development Act, in seven years. The bipartisan-supported, H.R.1495, the Water Resources Development Act of 2007 (WRDA), will give the Army Corps of Engineers the tools it needs to invest in environmental restoration and storm protection along the Gulf Coast, support the restoration of wetlands and their accompanying ecosystems across the country, improve transit and increase environmental protection along America’s waterways, and improve the safety of levees nationwide. As Congress works to pass the WRDA conference report, Democrats encourage the President to rescind his veto threat and join us in meeting the country’s diverse environmental and water infrastructure needs by signing the bill when it comes to his desk.
If signed by the President, WRDA will mark the end of a seven-year stalemate on how best to aid the Army Corps of Engineers. Since 2000, Americans have urged the federal government to secure water infrastructure in their communities — much of which is vital to protecting homes from catastrophic flooding. Unfortunately, efforts to reauthorize the work of the Army Corps of Engineers has been hampered at every level of government. The Army Corps protects families, homes, and businesses by constructing projects for flood damage reduction, navigation, ecosystem restoration, hydroelectric power, water supply, aquatic plant control, and hurricane and storm damage reduction.
This year, Democrats worked with Republicans to end this stalemate by passing WRDA in the House and Senate. The Senate’s version of the bill was passed in May. WRDA would reform the Army Corp by making operational improvements, requiring independent peer review of certain projects, and helping ensure cost-efficiency. The bill wouldalso help repair the Gulf Coast region by authorizing the Louisiana Coastal Area ecosystem restoration program. In August, the House passed the WRDA conference report, and after the August recess, the Senate is slated to do them same so that this important legislation can be sent to the President’s desk.
Major Provisions of the Water Resources Development Act of 2007 Conference Report
Water Resource Improvements
Title I will authorize 46 projects that seek to develop and conserve our nation’s water resources that are “substantially in accordance” with the conditions described in the Reports of the Chief of Engineers. The Senate-passed bill would have authorized 44 projects. Title I will:
- Leverage federal investments against local financial commitments to foster environmental restoration projects, improve navigation along waterways to improve commerce, and reduce catastrophic storm damage amongst local communities;
- Provide long-awaited assistance to avert shoreline and streambank degradation and the subsequent beach, river, streams, and lake erosion that degrades ecosystems and impairs fishing and recreation;
- Improve the ability for all levels of government to meet the threats posed by devastating floods and subsequently help avert the need for future environmental cleanup and public works improvements;
- Recognize the need to mitigate against the degradation of important ecosystems vis-à-vis the ability to move commerce through important waterways; and
- Address current legislative shortfalls needed to support aquatic ecosystem restorations that without action will degrade water quality, recreational water activities, and exacerbate the spread of aquatic invasive species.
Title II of the conference report includes “Army Corps Reform” language as well as changes to the cost sharing provisions, similar to those passed by the Senate, and enhances the ability of the Secretary of the Army to enter into cost-sharing partnerships to preserve important ecosystems like wetlands.
The conference report also includes major provisions that will:
- Authorize the Army Corps to allow non-federal interests to enroll in training classes and courses offered by it and to recoup expenses incurred in providing these services;
- Provide public access to water resources and related water quality data in the custody of the Army Corps;
- Re-nourish and restore beaches to mitigate against flood damage reduction and hurricane and storm damage reduction;
- Authorize an additional $8 million to reduce damage from floods and improve small harbors and rivers;
- Ensure fiscal transparency by requiring the Secretary to report on its expenditures and a set of wide ranging accountability reports on current and future scheduled projects;
- Support interagency and international activities, including contracting, to address gaps in our water infrastructure;
- Require an independent review on Army Corps projects to help offer additional evaluations of economic, environmental, and alternative projects models;
- Improve the Secretary’s ability to restore and protect an aquatic ecosystem or estuaries;
- Increase public oversight over projects by making electronic copies of documents available over the Internet;
- Expedite action from the Secretary to plan, design, and construct any flood control project in areas that have been subject to flooding that resulted in the loss of life and severe damage within the last five years;
- Allow the Secretary of the Army to enter into revised partnership and cost sharing agreements if federal participation in the project changes;
- Amend mitigation requirements for fish and wildlife losses to ensure effective, quality mitigation;
- Authorize the Secretary to participate with local authorities on firefighting; and
- Lift federal operational restrictions on the federal hopper dredges Yaquina and Essayons.
Title III of the conference report will authorize and instruct approximately 180 new and ongoing Army Corps projects. Dozens of these projects will greatly avert the risks posed by flooding, levee failures, and aquatic invasive species like Eurasian milfoil. The Senate-passed bill would have authorized nearly 150 projects.
Title IV of the conference report will direct the Secretary of the Army to conduct studies on 101 water infrastructure projects. These studies will aid the Army Corps and Congress in determining the costs, protocols, and potential navigation impacts. The Senate-passed bill would have authorized studies on 48 projects.
Title V will amend and add several water programs relating to estuary restoration, dam safety, watershed management, and flood mitigation.
The conference report also includes language to expedite the restoration of wetlands and aquifers across the Florida everglades. These are vital improvements given that the everglades are one of the world’s largest wetlands and provide wildlife habitat to a varying number of plant and animal species and help protect Florida from hurricanes.
Title VI will:
- Increase authorized funding for three water pilot programs in the Everglades to $71 million, from $69 million, and increase the federal cost-share for those programs to $36 million, from $34.5 million;
- Authorize an additional $20 million for critical watershed restoration projects aimed at averting the loss of wildlife habitat and properly balancing the hydrology of the region; and
- Permit the Army Corps to complete engineering models to properly future water resource projects to further protect the ecosystem.
Louisiana Coastal Area
Title VII of the WRDA conference report will help protect the Gulf Coast from dangerous storms, like Hurricane Katrina. The bill will authorize $3.5 billion for the Louisiana Coast to continue efforts to reverse wetland losses and provide hurricane and storm damage reduction benefits. The measure will:
- Develop comprehensive planning to protect, preserve, and restore the coastal Louisiana ecosystem;
- Produce environmental benefits that will likewise put a priority upon protecting major population centers;
- Establish a Coastal Louisiana Ecosystem Protection and Restoration Task Force that will make recommendations on the policies, strategies, plans, programs, projects, and activities for best addressing conservation, protection, restoration, and maintenance of the coastal Louisiana ecosystem;
- Modify existing authorizations and include $10 million in authorizations to better manage federally-authorized water resources projects;
- Improve scientific and technological advances needed to improve knowledge of the physical, chemical, geological, biological, and cultural baseline conditions in the coastal Louisiana ecosystem;
- Authorize a Louisiana Water Resources Council to provide a peer review panel for activities conducted by the Army Corps;
- Raise levee heights to provide 100-year flood protection; and
- Support the effort to provide New Orleans with increased hurricane protection.
Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway System
The upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway system is an important waterway, used to ship grain, predominantly from the heartland, all across the country. The conference report will:
- Authorize $256 million for near-term navigation improvements and ecosystem restoration along the system;
- Authorize $1.95 billion for new locks;
- Authorize the Army Corps to address the cumulative environmental impacts of operation of the system and improve the ecological integrity of the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois River through a $1.7 billion program; and
- Create an advisory panel to provide independent guidance in the development of environmental and navigation improvements.
National Levee Safety Program
Title VIII of the conference report will create a Committee on Levee Safety that, with a $20 million authorization for each fiscal year, will:
- Inspect the general condition of levees and estimate the number of structures and population at risk and protected by the levee if its protections were jeopardized;
- Develop recommendations for a national levee safety program, including a strategic plan for implementation of the program;
- Maintain a database with an inventory of the nation’s levees; and
- Make all of the information in the database available to appropriate federal, state, and local governmental agencies.
Though the conference report does not have a title devoted only to de-authorizations, the report will de-authorize all, or portions of, over 40Army Corps projects. The Senate-passed bill would have de-authorized 55 projects; the conference report will de-authorize 33 of the 55.