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Editorial - WRDA - 2016 Passage Looks Imminent in Upcoming Lame Duck Session

The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016 is even closer to becoming a reality this year. Although the late summer Congressional session has ended, as many go back home to campaign for reelection, the bill is in the final stages and readying for full pas-sage when Congress returns in November for the year’s final session.

On September 28, the House of Representatives approved its version of WRDA 2016, H.R. 5303, by a bipartisan vote of 399 to 25. A few weeks earlier, the Senate passed its version on September 15. Now, the two must merge, before the end of the year to remain on track with the intent of WRRDA 2014 in reestablishing the schedule for the passage water resource legislation every two years. The House and Senate versions have some similarities in theme, but the particulars of each bill highlight many different procedures and instruction.

Common themes include tweaks to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund process; facilitating public/private partnerships and non-federal project sponsors; a focus on encouraging beneficial use projects; and pilot projects that help expand the Corps’ reach and its ability to accept help from others to maintain federal waterways.

S. 2848 VS. H.R. 5303

The two bills, however, focus their attention quite differently. The majority of Senate bill, S. 2848, provisions focus on assisting non-federal sponsors initiate work, by helping the Corps accept non-federal dollars for projects and studies (Sec. 1002); aligning cost-share obligations for maintenance and construction projects (Sec. 2011); and establishing a pilot program to authorize non-federal interests to maintain federal navigation projects at their cost (Sec. 2015). These provisions could be invaluable in Corps efforts to reduce the project backlog and meet the country’s water resources infrastructure needs with a smaller budget.

The House bill, H.R. 5303, includes some about facilitating public/private partnerships and assisting non-federal sponsors, such as granting Corps assistance to non-federal sponsors for project studies (Sec. 126), and expanding the non-federal sponsor definition (Sec. 130). However, much of the House bill, as it relates to the dredging industry, is more focused on tweaking the project and study authorization and funding process between the Administration and Congress.

One of the most important provisions, with regard to the new process, is Sec. 132 of the House bill, which requires the Corps to offer guidance and education to regional authorities that want to submit project proposals for the annual report. Inclusion in this report is necessary for Congressional authorization and appropriations. Congressional criticism of the new process was that it produced far fewer projects to choose from than previous methods. It was argued in Congressional hearings that many of the local non-federal sponsors were either un-aware of the new process, were unsure of how to submit and/or didn’t clearly understand the requirements and therefore, could not be considered for inclusion in the final report. While many Corps districts are organizing education and outreach for their local sponsors already, this important provision should not be left out of the final bill.

The House bill also authorizes other studies and reports that focus on transparency for the funding process and water resources planning. Sec. 126 requires the Corps to establish a publicly available database on its maintenance dredging projects, and Sec. 138 requires the Corps to publish all the data online it has on water resource projects. 

Sec. 141 requires the Corps to report biennially on the metrics and project priorities used in developing the Civil Works budget. In some of the Congressional hearings focused on WRRDA 2014 implementation and preparing for WRDA 2016, Corps officials were often questioned about the process for deciding what was included in the budget and at what amount, and how the Administration prioritized those projects. In general, Congress wanted to do the prioritizing in the WRDA bills, rather than have the Corps prioritize projects for inclusion in the annual report. Much of WRRDA 2014 focused on establishing that new process, and WRDA 2016, particularly parts of the H.R. 5303, work to further clarify the authorization process. This process for project authorization is even more important, given the decision to ban earmarks from Congressional legislation. In general, I applaud Congress’ efforts to make the process as transparent as possible, but it also needs to lean on the Corps for its expertise when appropriate. Isn’t our government meant to work so that no one branch has all the power?

A few other interesting provisions included in S. 2848 that affect the dredging industry are Sec. 1008, which streamlines the Section 408 permit; Sec. 2004, which required that dredged material placement meets both federal and state standards; Sec. 2012, which authorizes dredging for shallow draft ports on the inland Mississippi River; and in support of beneficial use projects, Sec. 2017, which authorizes dredged material placement in locations other than the least cost alternative, if costs are offset by environmental benefits.

Also, in support beneficial use projects, H.R. 5303 includes a pilot project to support 10 federal/non-federal cost-share projects in diverse locations (Sec. 110); one to support non-federal sponsor sediment removal from dams (Sec. 111). Of interest to the dredging industry, Sec. 121 requests a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the costs and benefits of either expanding, reducing or maintaining the federal hopper dredge fleet.
All these provisions from both bills are important to fine-tuning the project process and moving forward dredging projects. The final bill should include most, if not all, of these provisions to facilitate more dredging work on its smaller budget and under better timeframes. When Congress returns the week of November 14, a House-Senate conference committee will begin work reconciling the differences between the two bills.

More than likely, the main debate will be over non-dredging related provisions. Overall, the Senate bill is much more encompassing, and larger in its total dollar amount. It includes funding projects for clean drinking water, sewer issues and clean water policies. The smaller House WRDA contains fewer of these provisions. However, both sides have expressed confidence that a final compromise bill can be negotiated and passed during the November-December lame duck session. 

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