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Editorial - House T&I Committee Approves Its WRDA 2016 Bill, H.R. 5303

On May 25, the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee unanimously approved H.R. 5303, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016. On April 28, the Senate Environmental and Public Works (EPW) Committee introduced and approved its version of WRDA 2016, S. 2848 (detailed in the last editorial). Before a final WRDA 2016, both bills must pass the House and Senate and a separate combined bill goes before the full Congress. It’s a long road, but support is widespread for WRDA legislation from both Republicans and Democrats, and both committee bill introductions were met with a lot of praise.

After the House bill was approved, T&I Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said, “The Water Resources Development Act of 2016 includes several critical provisions and re-forms to maintain and strengthen our ports, har-bors and waterways, while boosting our nation’s economic competitiveness. This legislation will create and sustain jobs, strengthen our coastal communities, and ensure that funds collected in the Harbor Maintenance Fund will be used for their intended purpose – harbor maintenance. I thank Chairmen Shuster and Gibbs for working with me and with Ranking Member Napolitano to produce this bipartisan bill, and will work with them to move this legislation through the House.”

If they are successful, WRDA 2016 will return Congress to its regular, biannual process for authorizing projects and studies for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The T&I Committee said the legislation has “strong bipartisan reforms,” following those started in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) of 2014. It contains no earmarks and adheres to a newer, more transparent process for Congressional review of proposed Corps projects.

Following the new review process, the House version of WRDA 16 authorizes 28 Corps of Engineers Chief’s Reports, which were submitted to Congress since the last bill. The Chief’s Reports are the Corps’ final step before recommending a project to Congress for authorization. Earlier this year, the T&I Committee held hearings on those Chief’s Reports to vet the projects and the new process, along with Corps Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, Jo-Ellen Darcy and Lieutenant General Thomas Bostick, Corps Chief of Engineers. I’ve already detailed much of the discussion surrounding the new process and the Section 7001 annual report. Both the Corps and Congress continue to work to tweak that process, as evidenced by WRDA 2016.

Here, I would like to detail some of the Chief’s Reports for dredging work up for authorization this year on WRDA 2016. All cost information is based on October 2015 pricing levels.

At Brazos Island Harbor, in Brownsville, Tex-as, a project would increase the depth of the federal channel to 52 feet for portions of the inner channel and 54 feet for the entrance channel. The Chief’s Report was submitted to Congress on February 23. The total initial project cost is $207.5 million. The federal share will be $117.7 million, and the non-federal share will be $89.8 million.

At the Calcasieu Lock in Louisiana, along with a sluice gate structure, dredging will be needed for a new bypass channel at 12 feet deep. The channel will transition to six feet deep at the structure. Initial project costs are $16.9 million and shared between the federal government and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. The Chief’s Report was submitted on August 20, 2015. 

On January 13, 2016, Congress received a Chief’s Report for the navigation improvements to Charleston Harbor. The locally preferred plan will deepen the entrance channel to 54 feet across the 800-foot width, while reducing the existing stepped 1,000-foot top channel width to 944-feet. Part of the the inner harbor will be deepened from -45 feet to -52 feet MLLW and -48 feet MLLW. The existing turning basins will be enlarged to an 1,800-foot diameter. Initial costs were estimated at $496 million.

At Port Everglades in Broward County, Florida, a project would increase the depth of the navigation channel to 48 feet, widen the outer entrance channel to 800 feet, and widen some access channels and turning basins. Initial project costs were estimated at $329 million ($224.5 federal share and $104.5 million, non-federal share.) The Chief’s Report was submitted on January 29.

Navigation improvements for Portsmouth Harbor and Piscataqua River in New Hampshire and Maine will increase the width of the turning basin from 800 to 1,200 feet at a cost of $22 million ($16.5 million federal share and $5.5 million non-federal share.)

The flood and storm damage reduction proj-ects include beach renourishment and shoreline construction projects at Boque Banks, Cartegrate County, North Carolina; Edisto Beach, Colleton County, South Carolina; Flagler County, Florida; and Hereford Inlet to Cape May Inlet, New Jersey.

Many of the individual sections of the WRDA 2016, H.R. 5303 version, pertain to dredging.

The first section (Sec. 101) may be a somewhat self-explanatory description, entitled “Sense of Congress regarding Water Resources Development Acts,” but it was interesting that the bill started here: with a list of Corps of Engineers responsibilities, including constructing projects for a number of goals, such as navigation and flood control; operating 600 dams, 12,000 miles of commercial inland navigation channels; dredging more than 200,000,000 cubic yards of sediment annually; maintaining 926 coastal, Great Lakes and inland harbors; restoring and enhancing wetlands; and many other non-dredging related activities. It then, describes some of the reforms from WRRDA 2014, before detailing how Congress views its role: “It is the sense of Congress that the mission of the Corps of Engineers are a unique function that benefits all Americas; water resources development projects are critical to maintaining economic prosperity, national security, and environmental protection; Congress has required timely delivery of project and study authorization proposals from non-federal project sponsors and the Corps of Engineers; and Congress should consider a Water Resources Development Act at least once every Congress.” 

Sec. 109 details a pilot project to be established no later than 90 days from the enactment of the bill, to carry out projects for the benefi-cial use of dredged material. The pilot project will include 10 projects chosen by the Corps of Engineers, in consultation with state agencies, and will be selected based on the environmental, economic and social benefits, as well as a need for geographical diversity and different types of projects. The section also calls for a re-port, no later than two years after the bill is en-acted and annually after that, as long as it takes to complete the 10 projects.

Sec. 110 also authorizes a pilot project by the Corps for accepting services provided by non-federal interest for the removal of sediment captured behind a federal dam.

Sec. 119 will take a look at the federal hop-per dredge fleet, calling for a study on the costs and benefits of expanding, reducing or maintaining the current federal fleet with respect to its size and vessel makeup. The study will consider the current and anticipated federal and private hopper dredge fleets; the current and anticipated trends for the volume and type of dredge work required over the next 10 years and how that aligns with the size of the existing federal and private hopper dredge fleet and future dredging needs. It calls for a report in one year.

Sec. 124 says a non-federal interest that is studying a water resources development project can receive technical assistance from the Corps of Engineers, if it pays for the services.

Sec. 130 addresses the annual report (established in Sec. 7001 of WRRDA 2014): “Con-gress plays a critical role in identifying, prioritizing and authorizing vital water resources infrastructure activities throughout the United States.” The section details some efforts to en-sure that non-federal interests are made aware of the new annual report process, as it requires them to submit proposals to be included in the final report. This section calls for the Corps to “develop, support and implement education and awareness efforts for non-federal interests,” including technical assistance materials, seminars and guidance on the annual process; and assistance for non-federal interest in developing project proposals.

Sec. 134 calls for the Corps to establish, maintain and make publicly available a data-base on maintenance dredging on Corps projects, including the volume of dredged material; the initial cost estimate by the Corps; the total cost; the dredge performing the work; and the number of private contractor bids received and the bid amounts.

Sec. 139 will have the Corps submit a re-port, in conjunction with the president’s budget submission to Congress, to the Senate EPW and the House T&I Committees, which describes the metrics used in developing the Civil Works budget for that fiscal year; the metric used in developing each business line in the budget; and how projects are prioritized in the applicable budget submission, including how the Corps determines those projects are recommended for authorization.

The majority of the House WRDA 2016 bill works to clarify and improve WRRDA 2014, and also includes some unique initiatives for pilot projects related to dredging, data collection and the annual budget analysis. Congress continues to push the Corps for transparency in project planning and making the best use of limited funds. 

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