Wide-Ranging Water Infrastructure Bill Easily Passes House (1)

July 29, 2020, 7:20 PMUpdated: July 29, 2020, 8:48 PM

Legislation authorizing the Army Corps of Engineers to boost the nation’s water infrastructure, protect waterways from emerging contaminants, and bolster coastal shorelines sailed through the House Wednesday.

On a voice vote, the House used a procedure reserved for mostly non-controversial legislation to pass the bipartisan Water Resources Development Act of 2020 (H.R. 7575), which lays out a two-year road map for projects that the Corps’ civil works program must tackle.

The bill passed under “suspension of the rules,” which allows the House to quickly move legislation. Under suspension, floor amendments are prohibited and a two-thirds vote is required for final passage.

The White House issued a statement Wednesday saying the bill could be improved.

“The administration looks forward to working with Congress to modify or remove certain provisions and to include others so that this important legislation can achieve its full potential,” it said.

The administration’s objections include a section in the bill that would reduce from 50% to 35% users’ share of the cost of inland water infrastructure projects. The White House said the share should remain at 50%.

‘Good, Common-Sense Bill’

Several Republicans and Democrats spoke in support of WRDA on the House floor Wednesday.

“This is a good, common-sense bill,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee and is a member of the Senate Republican leadership, has indicated his willingness to consider the House bill in its current form.

His committee this spring reported out two bills (S. 3590, S. 3591) to update the nation’s water infrastructure and drinking water systems.

The House bill directs the Corps to study the extent to which PFAS, so-called forever chemicals, have contaminated federally managed water projects, and to report annually to Congress.

The initial report would be due 18 months after enactment of the legislation. It would include the nature and extent of any existing and potential contamination, pathways for human exposure, response measures taken, the entities responsible for any contamination, and the costs to remediate and reduce the risk of human exposure to PFAS—per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are used in firefighting foam and numerous consumer products and have been linked to health concerns.

New Projects

Corps’ projects can be found in every part of the country that has a port, a lock and dam, or some of water infrastructure project. For this reason, the water resources legislation that authorizes multimillion-dollar projects has typically enjoyed bipartisan support.

The legislation would direct Corps funding to 38 new projects and 35 studies that include repairing locks and dams on inland waterways, and to boost coastal shorelines against flooding. The funding would also go toward protecting the nation’s inland waters against harmful algae blooms and invasive species, such as the Asian carp.

In what many barge operators considered a victory, the bill would unlock the $10 billion collected in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to upgrade major ports, including those found in coastal cities and the Great Lakes.

WRDA is reauthorized every two years because the Corps operates 13,000 miles of commercial ship channels, 12,000 miles of inland waterways, and more than 700 dams, according to an April 2019 report from the Congressional Research Service. The Corps has also built 14,500 miles of levees and works on more than 900 harbors.

Fortifying Inland Waterways

The House-approved H.R. 7575 directs the Corps to move forward with fortifying the Brandon Road Lock and Dam against the invasive Asian carp that threatens the ecosystem in Lake Michigan.

“The adjustment of the federal cost share is important because the federal government will pay for more of the construction. We need less of a burden on local and state governments that already are struggling with budget shortfalls due to the pandemic,” Molly Flanagan, policy vice president for the nonprofit Alliance to Save Great Lakes, told Bloomberg Law ahead of the House vote.

The Brandon Road Lock and Dam, located about 50 miles downstream from Chicago, is a critical choke point for preventing the invasive carp from entering Lake Michigan. In May 2019, the Corps completed a plan intended to stop the carps’ migration by constructing fortifications at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam.

The bill would increase the federal share of the $863.30 million project from the current 65 percent share to 80 percent, or an estimated $561.14 million. The non-federal cost would amount to $302.16 million. The Great Lakes Task Force, a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the Senate and House that advocate favorable policies for the Great Lakes, pushed for increasing the federal share of the project, which it described as one of national significance.

Unlocking the Harbor Fund

H.R. 7575 would unlock $10 billion from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which was raised by levying fees on shippers, to carry out much-needed repairs at the nation’s largest ports in the coastal states as well as Great Lakes and any emerging ports.

Most U.S. imports and exports depend on ports, and large amounts of grain, steel, coal, petroleum, and other commodities move by inland waterways, giving the Army Corps projects significance to virtually every state.

The bill also would increase the share of inland water infrastructure project costs from 50% from the general Treasury fund to 65%, while the remaining 35% would be funded by the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which is based on fees levied on barge operators.

The Waterways Council Inc., which represents the nation’s barge operators, has said it supports the decrease in user’s share and the subsequent increase in federal share. But they said they would like it to be permanent like the Senate version of this bill, and not subject to the seven-year sunset clause that is included in the legislation.

The bill would provide $740.8 million to complete the Everglades restoration project in South Florida. The Corps also would be directed to use natural solutions, such as restoring wetlands and native vegetation, to reduce flooding risk in vulnerable communities along the Great Lakes and other parts of the country.

(Updated with additional reporting. )

To contact the reporters on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bloombergindustry.com; Kellie Lunney in Washington at klunney@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com

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