On June 6, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2018 (H.R. 8). The bill passed by a vote of 408 to 2. The bill was introduced by Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, T&I Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Garret Graves (R-LA), and Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee Ranking Member Grace Napolitano (D-CA).
Most praised the bill’s passage, touting the theme: #WRDAWORKS. (Yes, that’s the Twitter hashtag for this year’s WRDA bill.) Shuster says it works because it supports infrastructure that affects every American, as consumers looking for the food we have on our store shelves, as the businesses and farmers that produce our goods, and as communities protected from flood and storm damage.
On the downside, the 2018 bill did little to address funding issues overall, particularly with the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. Congressman DeFazio was also not quiet in expressing his disappointment over certain provisions in the bill or lack thereof.
In the House’s official WRDA statement, he said: “I am extremely disappointed that the bill does not include a bipartisan provision that would have ensured that funds collected in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) are used only for harbor maintenance—not for unrelated government spending. Unlocking the HMTF is key to ensuring we’re not just adding to the $100 billion-dollar backlog of projects at the Corps of Engineers but are actually using existing funds to make real investments in our nation’s ports, harbors and waterways. Despite the removal of my HMTF provision, I support this legislation because of the many other provisions, which will improve safety, sustain jobs and provide improvements to projects undertaken by the Army Corps.”
Congress has stuck to its plan to revisit water resources legislation every two years, and it is one of the few issues that has wide support on both sides of the aisles. The House T&I committee continues to drive home its focus on reforms from the 2014 Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), which established a new process for water resource approval and legislation, and which Congress hopes to be transparent and locally driven. In many ways, they have accomplished a lot in those areas, and the new bill continues to hone in on many of the important changes started in WRRDA 2014.
Local Sponsors and Project Proposals
Since 2014, a lot of the legislative focus has been on clarifying the submittal process for proposed projects. Local sponsors submit project proposals, which are reported annually by the Corps to Congress. From that list, Congress authorizes projects in the water resource bills. There was concern early on that local sponsors didn’t understand the process, or it was too complicated or had too many stipulations that it was limiting for local partners. The Corps has worked hard to hone its guidance on the new practices and educate local partners on the process. This continues with the new bill.
Sec. 114 reads, “ To ensure that Congress can gain a thorough understanding of the water resources development needs and priorities of the United States, it is important that the Secretary take sufficient steps to ensure that non-federal interests are made aware of the new annual report process, including the need for non-federal interests to submit proposals during the Secretary’s annual request for proposals in order for such proposals to be eligible for consideration by Congress.”
Some Corps districts have held education sessions on the new process, but more is needed to help local sponsors guide the process. One criticism of the process so far is that the number of projects up for authorization has dropped significantly.
Sec. 115 of the new bill also directs the Corps to inform non-federal stakeholders of the intent to issue new guidance and give local partners a chance to provide input and recommendations. After the Corps announces intent to develop guidance, the legislation calls for 60 days for non-federal stakeholder input.
Sec. 1043 of WRRDA 2014 established a pilot program to evaluate non-federal involvement in feasibility studies and construction projects for flood risk management, hurricane and storm damage reduction, ecosystem restoration and coastal harbor, channel and inland harbor navigation. Sec. 121 of the new H.R. 8 extends that pilot program, originally through 2019, to 2023.
Continued attention has been paid to developing smaller navigation projects. Sec. 107 of the 1960 River and Harbor Act authorized the Corps to develop small navigation projects. Previously, the federal cost-share on those projects was limited to $10M. Section 134 of the new bill increases that amount to $12,500,000.
A number of the bill’s sections also deal with continued scrutiny of Corps practices and procedures, in order to reduce backlogs and move authorized projects faster. Also, some consideration has been given to shifting Civil Works responsibilities from the Corps. On June 21, the White House released a proposal that would transfer navigation responsibilities to the Department of Transportation. Such a change would require Congressional authorization, which may be a battle up Capital Hill, but the new House WRDA bill, via Section 119, does some to explore this option. This section would authorize the National Academy of Sciences to bring a committee of experts together to study the Corps’ ability to carry out its mission, and as the bill reads: “the potential effects of transferring the functions (including regulatory obligations), personnel, assets and civilian staff responsibilities of the secretary relating to Civil Works from the Department of Defense to a new or existing agency or sub agency of the federal government.” The study will also look at improving the Corps project delivery process; the effects of the annual appropriations process on the Corps ability to security contracts; and the effects of Corps leadership and structure, such as the frequency of rotations of senior leaders, on its mission.
H.R. 8, Sec. 126 also calls for a study, also by the National Academy of Sciences, to look at the Corps’ economic principles and analytical methodologies used to evaluate and budget projects.
The Comptroller General will also submit a report to Congress (no later than 180 days after enactment) describing the capacity and preparedness of the Corps’ workforce and an assessment of existing Corps technology.
The focus continues on Corps efficiency and perhaps bigger changes. Is anyone studying the Department of Transporation’s capacity for taking on navigation projects? The Corps, as an agency, is in many ways just the messenger, between Congress and the administration. With its many revisions to the process in recent water resources legislation, Congress wants to retain its responsibility over project authorization and the decision-making process. However, the administration retains its authorty over the budget process and what projects get funded. The Corps takes a lot of heat for funding issues, project backlogs and permit approvals, which are problems of an underfunded system, and not something I’m not sure another federal agency could fix easily either. But the studies could also result in more improvements for the Corps.
On May 22, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed its water resource legislation bill with a 21 to 0 vote.
Both committees have been working together on a combined bill. At presstime, September 10, House and Senate committee leaders announced an agreement on the legislation, America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018. Next issue we’ll explore the combined bill, as it moves toward passage in both houses.