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Boxer and Shuster Break WRDA Impasse

On February 5, Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Bill Shuster met to discuss the Waterways Development Act conference bill, and appear to have broken an impasse that has existed since the November 20 meeting of the conference committee.

Sen. Boxer is chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) committee, and Rep. Shuster is chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) committee.

Writing for the E&E Reporter on February 7, Ann Snider quoted Sen. Boxer as saying that they had an “excellent” conversation, are now on track, and had “laid out the next set of issues.”

After the House passed its water resources bill in October, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) and the House T&I committee appointed their conference committee members, and after the upbeat initial November 20 meeting, there was little news from the committees on the progress of the talks.

On December 12, E&E reported committee member Sen. David Vitter as saying that the talks had veered off track and that he blamed the House.

At issue are a number of differences in the two bills, specifically regarding what projects will be authorized and how they will be authorized, though committee spokespersons are not confirming this.

Also, the environmental community is alarmed at the permit fast-tracking provisions in the bills. Melissa Sanet, senior water resources counsel for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), said that it and other environmental groups see the environmental review streamlining as undermining the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, and they believe that the streamlining will produce environmentally damaging projects, while leaving no time to assess other, less damaging ways to proceed in any given project.

Reached on February 21, Justin Harclerode, press representative for the House T&I Committee, said that according to Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, the conference continues to make progress, but that he is not commenting on specifics or on a timeline. Meetings are happening on a continuing basis between members and staff, Harclerode said, and all the involved parties want to complete a conference report as soon as possible.

The 113th Congress ends on December 31, 2014, and the committee has until then to produce and pass the bill.

In January, Barry Holliday, executive director of the Dredging Contractors of America (DCA) said, “We were pleased to hear the President mention ports in his State of the Union message, and acknowledge the need for Congress to pass a Water Resources bill. He mentioned this summer, (but) we hope this will happen sooner.”

Holliday is also chair of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Fairness Coalition.

Holliday reconfirmed the RAMP commitment to achieving “full use of the HMTF revenues for the intended purpose of O&M of all navigation projects,” and not to initiatives to expand the uses of the HMTF.

“We believe the phased-in percentage proposals in the House version have the appeal from the Appropriators, and offer a way forward to gradually increase HMTF appropriations to the Corps,” he said.

“The House and Senate still seem to be at odds regarding a few issues, and inquiries to Subcommittee Chair Gibbs and Ranking Member Bishop, as well as Senate EPW staff, do not yield any specific information. We would encourage you to continue asking your representatives to reach out to the WRDA conferees, and ask them to seek agreement on a Conference WRDA bill,” Holliday said, addressing waterways stakeholders.

He reported that for FY 2013 (through the end of September 2013) the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) balance is $7,936,036,318.33; $809,375,354 was paid to the Corps for water projects. The HMTF tax collected in FY 2013 was $1.62 billion (including $96.7 million interest). The payout to the Corps, St Lawrence Seaway and Customs equaled $843,221,015, so the net to the fund was $776,763,428.

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