House, Senate lawmakers begin conference on water resources development programs

By Derrick Cain

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 21, 2013 - House and Senate lawmakers held a conference meeting Wednesday to formally kick off negotiations between their bipartisan bills seeking to re-authorize water resources development programs.

Lawmakers and stakeholders are expecting to get the legislation, which would re-authorize the programs for the first time in more than five years, done by the end of the year.

The House's Water Resources Reform and Development Act (H.R. 3080)  and the Senate's Water Resources Development Act (S. 601) would allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop, maintain, and support the nation's vital port and waterways infrastructure needs, and support effective and targeted flood protection and environmental concerns.

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Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said conferees will be working during the two-week Thanksgiving break to resolve final differences. “Even though we won't be sitting around a table, we'll be around a virtual table,” Boxer said, telling lawmakers to “just call me.”

The conference meeting largely involved conferees offering opening statements to make policy points.

Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee ranking member David Vitter, R-La., said the Senate bill could create up to 500,000 jobs.

“We have the opportunity to reform the Corps of Engineers, streamline flood protection projects, improve our waterways and infrastructure, and appropriately allocate funding for projects to maintain our ports and harbors all in one bill,” Vitter said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., told conferees he will be pushing to ensure support for Montana's water and wastewater systems including protections against flood and drought and resources to safeguard tourism and recreation at Montana's Flathead Lake.

Baucus said he wants an additional $30 million to be included in the final bill to match state investments in blocking invasive zebra and quagga mussels from entering Flathead Lake and disrupting the local economy. The mussels cause problems for motor boats, irrigation and water purification systems and fisheries. “Protecting Flathead Lake protects Montana jobs,” Baucus told conferees. “Tourism and recreation are cornerstones of our Montana economy, and we have to take smart steps to protect the resources that make those jobs possible.”

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said he is concerned about the oversight of federal water projects, specifically dams. Hastings said the Senate bill would give the Corps broad discretion to change project purposes at the projects without congressional approval. “This would be a mistake,” he said.

The House bill would keep that authority within Congress. “The Congress should not forfeit its responsibility to ensure that billions of taxpayer dollars that flow to these multi-purpose projects are managed responsibly,” Hastings said.

Conferees have several issues to work through including user fees and solving Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund problems, but lawmakers are optimistic about getting the deal done.

“The similarities [between the bills] exceed the differences,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

Also, the Senate bill contains language, offered by Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., that would modify EPA's Oil Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure rule. The EPA regulation currently affects any facility with a fuel storage capacity of more than 1,320 gallons, which includes a majority of Nebraska farms. The provision provides for an immediate 6,000-gallon exemption, with a study to review and determine the most appropriate level of exemption for those tanks with storage capacities between 2,500 and 6,000 gallons. In addition, the provision increases the oil storage threshold to determine whether a professional engineer must certify a facility's SPCC plan from 10,000 gallons to 20,000 gallons.   

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