Water resources bill expected to advance key infrastructure projects

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 14, 2014 - After months of negotiations, House and Senate negotiators, including Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Bill Shuster announced a deal to advance the $8.2 billion Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), which could fix ailing locks and dams, restore waterways, renew ports, provide for flood control and create an estimated 500,000 new jobs. Votes are expected as early as next week when both chambers are back in Washington.

As the first water resources conference agreement since 2007, the legislation is long overdue for farmers and ranchers, who ship over 60 percent of their products overseas and rely on well-maintained waterways and ports to keep their competitive edge. The House and Senate passed separate bills by strong margins, but conferees had been unable to break a logjam until a deal was announced last Thursday. Still, many projects will still be subject to approval by appropriators.

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One key to the compromise, sources say, was figuring out how Congress could authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to work on certain projects in the absence of earmarks. Instead, House lawmakers relied on a favorable recommendation by the Chief of Engineers, known as the “Chief's report” as the basis to authorize projects. But sources say it wasn't until the Chief's report included a few “must have” projects requested by Senators that the deal came together.

While the text of the H.R. 3080 has not yet been released, a few lawmakers have offered up details. For example, Sen. David Vitter, the lead Senate GOP negotiator on the WRRDA conference committee, said the bill authorizes funds for the Morganza-to-the-Gulf flood control project in his home state of Louisiana and includes “critical reforms to the Corps of Engineers that expedite project delivery and penalize the Corps for missing deadlines.” The package will also allow for an increase in Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund expenditures and prioritize funding for high- and medium-use ports.

Georgia lawmakers expressed confidence that the measure authorizes new funding to complete work on the Savannah harbor, where authorities want to open the way for larger cargo ships moving through the Panama Canal and up the Atlantic. And the Sabine-Neches Waterway, connecting oil refineries in Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas, to the Gulf of Mexico, could finally be deepened. The legislation is expected to allow ports to pay for the cost of deepening harbors and then seek reimbursement for authorized projects.

North Dakota Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven announced that conference report includes two top priorities for their state: authorization for permanent flood protection in the Red River Valley and a provision barring the Corps of Engineers from charging residents and businesses for Missouri River reservoir water.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the compromise contains language to address the impact of global warming on sea levels and ocean temperatures, but House sources say a proposed National Endowment for Oceans was dropped due to GOP opposition.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Ca., said the final version of the bill authorizes the Sutter Basin Flood Protection Project on the Feather River and the Natomas Levee Project and accelerates the process for water infrastructure projects. In addition, he said the bill “allows the Army Corps to make a decision on levee vegetation based on local circumstances, instead of indiscriminatingly clear cutting on the Sacramento River and elsewhere.”

Industry sources say the bill also includes a Senate provision launching a new federal loan program for Corps and Environmental Protection Agency water projects - a priority for Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Ca., and will perhaps reauthorize the state revolving loan (SRF) program for wastewater-treatment projects.

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said that if appropriators follows through as expected on all of the projects authorized in the conference report, the additional funding for harbor maintenance would be a “big win. That's real, additional money,” he said. The final bill is also expected to reform funding for the long-overdue Olmsted Locks and Dam project on the Ohio River, from a 50-50 cost share between the federal government and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which is financed by the barge industry, to an 85 percent federal and 15 percent IWTF split. The change could free up about $50 million for other lock and dam projects, Steenhoek said. “If that occurs, that's certainly another win.”

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