By Carolyn Berndt
Last week, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee unanimously passed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA, S. 601) that would authorize 18 new U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) flood protection, navigation and ecosystem restoration projects while instituting a number of reforms to the process. NLC supports the bill.
As a top priority for Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair and Senator David Vitter (R-LA), ranking member, the two worked together in a bipartisan fashion to develop and pass the legislation. "This is a landmark day because Congress hasn't passed a WRDA bill in five years, and our nation's water resources infrastructure just cannot wait," Boxer said. "WRDA is critical for flood control, port commerce, safe drinking water and wastewater infrastructure."
The legislation contains a provision that would increase flexibility for non-federal sponsors of Corps projects, including a pilot program aimed at improving the quality and speed of projects by allowing local and state governments to take over as project manager for Corps projects.
Additionally, the legislation includes a five year pilot program to provide additional water infrastructure financing opportunities for local governments. Known as the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA, modeled after the successful TIFIA program), the bill authorizes $50 million annually to both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Corps for flood control, water supply and wastewater projects. Based on the TIFIA model, this level of authorization is estimated to support at least $500 million annually in low interest loans for each EPA and the Corps. NLC believes such an alternative financing mechanism is an important tool that local governments can use to upgrade and improve the nation's water infrastructure.
The program would allow local governments to receive loans and loan guarantees at U.S. Treasury rates for projects such as pipe replacement or rehabilitation, new or upgraded treatment plants, CSO and wastewater projects, reuse, desalination, capital projects to improve energy efficiency, and new water supply projects over $20 million.
Finally, recognizing the importance of ports and their impact on the national economy and job creation, one of the reforms in the legislation is a requirement that all of the proceeds from the Harbor Maintenance Tax be used for their intended purpose of port maintenance, a provision in line with NLC policy.
The measure does not, however, include a fix for funding the nation's aging inland waterway system, which Vitter yesterday said he hopes to take care of on the floor. "It is our goal to have provisions broadly comparable to the harbor maintenance provisions regarding the Inland Waterway Trust Fund on the floor," Senator Vitter stated. Recognizing the importance of inland waterways and their impact on the national and local economies, NLC supports sufficient funding for inland waterways infrastructure, including fully funding the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has said the bill could be brought to the Senate floor in April or May.
In the House, the chairman and ranking members of both the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment have begun work on similar water resources legislation. Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) has stated that passing a WRDA bill is the committee's first priority. Given the ban on earmarks, committee staff is looking at how best to craft the legislation without ceding authority to the executive branch, as they feel the Senate version does.
For more information on the Senate bill, including bill text and a summary, click here.