A Senate committee will be holding its second hearing on a key water resources bill on May 17th. Assistant Secretary of the Army, R.D. James will be providing the Administration’s views about the bill. You can watch the hearing here.
My colleague Dan Ginolfi has prepared this analysis of some of the bill’s key provisions.
With its introduction of S. 2800, America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 (AWIA18), the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is taking several steps that will help put the nation on a firmer water resources course for both the immediate and long-term future. [The text of the bill hasn’t been published yet, but here’s a WaterLog link to its pre-publication version.]
The bill addresses the need for multi-year budgeting and regionality in planning, and requires the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to conduct a study on Corps transparency at the local, state and congressional levels. The bill also requires a General Accountability Office (GAO) study and report to Congress on Corps benefit-cost analyses of proposed projects to see if they are leaving important benefits uncounted. Also included are sections authorizing a collaborative multi-year study of Great Lakes coastal resiliency, another authorization extension for projects whose 50-year life is expiring, and a provision that’s frankly unclear as written that extends the fiscal life of coastal storm damage reduction projects. There’s also a provision authorizing the Corps to build a new hopper dredge specifically for nourishing Federal shore protection projects. It is expected that the Committee will act on its bill in June, with Senate floor action later this year. The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee is reported to be nearing release of a draft of its version of this Water Resources Development (WRDA) legislation. Prospects for passage of a Senate-House compromise before the end of this year are very good.
The bill improves Corps transparency under section 1001 by requiring the Corps to provide its cost-share partners with balance sheet data on how it is spending its cost-share partners’ money. It also requires that non-Federal funds unused for a project that came in under budget be maintained for use in the project’s maintenance or for other projects unless the funds are reimbursed. Section 1002 of the bill calls on the NAS to conduct studies regarding ways the Corps can increase transparency at local, state and congressional levels, and whether Congress should use a system-wide, instead of a project-based, authorization process for water resources projects. The NAS will also study whether the Corps is operating in the most efficient manner that maximizes coordination, transparency and cost savings. If this ever gets funded, completed, and considered by Congress, it could be a major game-changer for the Corps’ civil works programs.
A required GAO study will look into what costs and benefits are used by the Corps in its project benefit-cost-ratio (BCR) calculations. Historically BCR analyses have given short shrift to socio-cultural, environmental and recreational benefits as well as economic benefits it claims are only regional. We have talked before about the limitations of the BCR analyses, so it is good to see Congress taking this first step to unpeel this onion.
Regionality is also addressed in Section 3403 that expands use the “Section 204” Regional Sediment Program” to move sediment trapped behind Federal dams and reservoirs. Development of regional sediment budgets (the kind that deal with quantities of sand, not dollars) is being discussed nationwide because of sediment-starved coastal and inland regions searching for new sources and better uses of available sediment. The Section 204 program is an underused opportunity for States to get the assistance of the Corps in developing regional plans that, along the nation’s coasts, will provide cost savings on dredge mobilization and coordination among local projects and nourishment cycles.
AWIA18 authorizes additional funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), including sections for fish and wildlife restoration. GLRI has been zeroed out in the last two years of the administration’s budgets, but Congress has restored that funding. Also, the bill authorizes a Great Lakes Coastal Resiliency Study, which is the first time a group of States has collaborated to develop a multi-agency, intergovernmental study of common coastal problems. It focuses on lake level fluctuations, erosion, flooding, nutrient runoff, and aging infrastructure as well as regional economic and recreational issues.
A special rule, section 3607, has been updated for AWIA18 to allow beach nourishment projects to remain eligible for nourishment for an additional 3 years after expiration, if the expiration is within 5 years of the enacted date of AWIA18. What remains unclear is the intent of a second section of the bill (sec. 3608) that extends Federal fiscal participation in shore protection projects for up to 6 years after the enactment of AWIA18.
We’d like to know about other provisions you would like us to focus on in future updates. Please email me with your comments and questions.