Democrats have taken control of the House, ending the GOP’s 8-year reign. So what does that mean for Water Resources? One thing is infrastructure. Trump wants infrastructure, so do Democrats – Nancy Pelosi, the likely Speaker of the House in the next Congress, spoke about how a wave of infrastructure, supporting the economy by adding jobs and improving transportation, is a first priority. What remains a mystery is how it will be funded.
Let’s talk more about positioning and how changes in leadership within Congress will affect our water resources outlook - All of the committee and subcommittee chairs switch from Republicans to Democrats. While each party has a process to choose its committee leaders, generally seniority is the biggest factor. Take the House Appropriations Committee, for example. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) currently chairs that important committee. The current “Ranking Democrat”, the one with the most seniority on the committee, is Nita Lowey whose district is just north of New York City. Both Frelinghuysen and Lowey reflect the general mindset of most Appropriations Committee members which is far less partisan than most other committees. Both have supported the coastal and other water resources interests of the nation. The subcommittee handling the Corps of Engineers budget is currently chaired by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID). The Ranking Democrat is Rep. Marcy Kaptur (R-OH). Ms. Kaptur has been a very outspoken proponent of Great Lakes interests. Assuming that Ms. Lowey takes over the full committee and Ms. Kaptur, the subcommittee, the change brought about by yesterday’s elections will leave strong supporters of water resources funding at the helm of the committee in charge of funding.
On the policy side, the current chair of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Bill Shuster (R-PA), is retiring at the end of this year. The ranking Democrat Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon has been a strong supporter of water resources, with a very heavy emphasis on the needs of the Pacific Northwest. Current Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee chair Garret Graves (R-LA) has been highly critical of the Corps of Engineers during his career as a state official. The subcommittee’s ranking Democrat is Rep. Grace Napolitano of California. She has shown active support water resources. Overall, the committee has functioned in a bipartisan manner for several decades, a trait that should continue in the next Congress.
Stepping back for a moment, all this good news has to be put into context of a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats, and a White House and Senate in the hands of Republicans, with the President having veto power and Democrats not likely to have enough votes to override his veto. Look for the House funding committee to show different priorities than its Senate counterpart. In recent years, the GOP has favored increased defense spending over the Dems’ preference of boosting domestic spending. Add in the fact that a presidential election is just two years away, and it may be hard to get most funding bills passed in 2019. You’ll be hearing of “The Wall” and “Government Shutdown” by next June or July.
While the Democratic leadership in the House is likely to push for a suite of investigations of the President, there is one area that they could join hands: infrastructure. I’m not putting money on it, and the Republicans may not be willing to spend real money on it, but this is a win-win issue for both parties and, most importantly, for the nation.
Another case of managed retreat has occurred here on the East Coast – Fire Island, Long Island, NY. Dozens of homeowners have been bought out, or have provided easements on their land to build dunes to prevent storm surge from destroying property on the Island. But critics say that the dunes will do nothing to stop back bay flooding – and they’re probably right – because dunes don’t do that! Back bay flooding is a widespread issue. New Jersey has an entire study ($18 million) dedicated to better understanding back bay flows, sediment flows, and how the back bays function during severe storms and flooding. The Corps has tentatively proposed tidal and inlet flood gates in New Jersey, something that parallels the work the Corps is doing in Texas with their Coastal Spine (Ike Dike) designed to protect Galveston and Houston from another Harvey. Will they propose flood gates here, too? Managed retreat isn’t new. Click here to read how the Brighton Beach Hotel on Coney Island was loaded onto freight tracks and moved inland in 1888. Here is a reimagined park in Boston that trades sea walls for parks. Here is a proposal for the ‘Big-U’ in Manhattan, which is designed to put parks and recreation facilities (open space) in harms way during storms.
A novel method for detecting heat stored in oceans was published recently – The study identifies that our oceans are storing more heat than we imagined, which would inevitably lead to faster sea level rise. This means more erosion, more beach nourishment and more managed retreat (did I say that?). In some places, it just makes sense. Remember, for beach nourishment it all boils down to economics. If beach nourishment isn’t in the best interest of the nation, the project won’t be funded. In fact, the White House Office of Management and Budget likes to only fund shore protection projects with a benefit-cost ratio greater than 2.5. If the federal government is putting sand on your beach, you can bet your community and the nation are benefitting from it. Some houses were simply built in places that were too risky – these are the places that are best suited for managed retreat.