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Congress paves way for water infrastructure improvements

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (HR 3080) conference report has been approved by both the House and Senate. The bill is an aptly renamed Water Resources Development Act—and if signed into law will be the first WRDA in seven years.

In general WRDA outlines water infrastructure actions to be undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers.  This time around it includes significant reforms, such as setting hard deadlines, consolidating or eliminating redundant studies and eliminating unnecessary ones, and streamlining the environmental review process.

Other highlights include:

  • Becoming more fiscally responsible, by deauthorizing $18 billion of old inactive projects (which offsets the cost of new authorizations), establishing a sunset for new authorizations, and liquidating properties that are no longer needed for USACE missions.
  • Improves oversight and accountability by avoid earmarks and establishing a transparent process to prioritize and review water development activities
  • Expands local involvement by increasing flexibility for non-federal entities to contribute their own funding to move studies forward and to expedite evaluations and permit processing and by establishing a Public Private Partnership Program to increase local involvement in project implementation
  • Strengthens dam and levee safety, improves USACE response to extreme weather events, and encourage the use of resilient materials and construction techniques
  • Provides investments and support for ports and harbors, reforms the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, and authorizes priority water resources improvements—all aimed at increasing U.S. competitiveness, creating jobs and improving water infrastructure. 

The House overwhelmingly passed the conference report on May 20 on a vote of 412 to 4.

“This legislation supports our water transportation network to keep our Nation competitive, improve the flow of commerce, and provide a foundation for job growth,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R–PA).  “WRRDA is the also the most policy and reform-focused measure of its kind in decades, and the most fiscally responsible water resources bill in history.  It cuts red tape, reforms the federal bureaucracy, accelerates project delivery, and more than fully offsets authorizations for needed infrastructure improvements by deauthorizing unneccesary, outdated projects.  This is legislation that’s good for the economy, good for jobs, and good for America.”

Senate approval followed on May 22 with a vote of 91 to 7.

Upon Senate passage of the bill, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D–CA) said, “I am so proud of the overwhelming bipartisan vote in both the Senate and the House to pass this strong water infrastructure bill today. Our bill invests in vital water infrastructure that protects communities from flooding, maintains navigation routes for commerce and the movement of goods, restores vital ecosystems and provides a boost to our economy by creating jobs. I want to thank Senator Vitter, Rep. Bill Shuster and Rep. Nick Rahall for all of their work to finish this conference report and move this important legislation to the President’s desk.”

Passage of WRRDA came on the heels of another move to boost water infrastructure projects.  On May 15, Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Michael Crapo (R-ID) introduced S. 2345, which would remove the volume cap on private equity bonds used for water and wastewater infrastructure—ultimately increasing investment opportunity in those projects.

The National Association of Water Companies (NAWC) applauded the introduction of S. 2345.

“The infrastructure that delivers clean water to our homes, workplaces, hospitals and schools in many communities across the county is in disrepair,” said Michael Deane, executive director of the NAWC.  “A removal on bond caps for water projects will bring funding for this vital piece of the nation’s infrastructure in line with airports, high-speed rail and solid waste disposal, all of which are currently exempt from existing caps.  PABs are a critical source of financing for the public water systems serviced by regulated water utilities, and serve as an important tool to leverage the value of public private partnerships in resolving the infrastructure gap that exists in our nation’s water systems.”

A companion bill was introduced in the House in March.

Written by Marta Weismann