Appropriators say Corps of Engineers needs more, but not for WOTUS

By Sarah Gonzalez

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 2015-Appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate questioned the Army Corps of Engineers today on President Obama's proposal to reduce spending for the agency in fiscal year 2016, while allocating $5 million for “waters of the United States” implementation.

Both Democrats and Republicans expressed concerns about Obama's plan to cut Corps spending.   The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said the budget reduction is “such a problem” because the Corps has to maintain inland waterways, keep ports open and manage river levels to prevent flooding, among other activities.  

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“It must be unique to testify before Congress and have members say you're not spending enough money,” House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, told the Corps officials testifying at the hearing. “There are too many members that have an interest in the important work that you do.”

For the entire government, the president proposed a record $4 trillion budget for FY 2016 that spends about $74 billion above the discretionary spending caps set in the Budget Control Act of 2011, but the budget for the Army Corps of Engineers is around 13 percent less than what Congress allocated for 2015.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the drop in the Corps' budget is “not acceptable when we consider all the water resource needs in the United States.”

She said she assumes the administration must expect appropriators to add money to the Corps budget because “they know we are all passionate about it.”

Simpson noted that Congress added $922 million above the budget request for FY 2015, and added $641 million for 2014.

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In this year's budget proposal, “almost every major category in the Corps' budget is cut,” Simpson said, adding that funding for harbor maintenance activities and for construction of inland waterways are both cut 17 percent.

However, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., pointed out a $5 million increase for “regulatory activity” in the Corps' budget, which Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, affirmed is for implementing a redefined “waters of the United States” rule.

The proposed rule, currently under review, would redefine what streams, ditches and other features are regulated by the Clean Water Act. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, said the proposed regulation “will place stringent standards on thousands of miles of streams across the country, some of which only flow seasonally after heavy rains.”

Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the Corps' chief of engineers, said the unit plans to hire 25 new employees to enforce the regulation.

Darcy said the $5 million is for an expected “initial” increase in Clean Water Act permits and regulatory training for employees, but that the new definitions would add clarity and eventually make permit reviews less frequent.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, the ranking member of the House subcommittee, voiced her worries over the Corps' construction backlog of around $60 billion, which she said is a “daunting” figure.

Darcy noted that the Water Resources Development Act passed last year requires the Corps assess and report on this backlog. She said it could be more than $60 billion in projects, and confirmed the Corps would report to Congress by September.

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