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Water Resource Reform, Port Channels and Flood Control, Oh My!

Posted in Legislation, Natural Resources and Environment, Project Permitting, Water Quality

At long last, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA) is expected to be passed by the Senate today and signed by President Obama soon. The first water resources development bill was enacted in 1974 and was intended to be reauthorized every two years. It was consistently updated (except for a hiatus between 1976 and 1986) until recently—this 2014 bill is the first since 2007. One can understand why our ports, for one, were anxious to see it passed.

The 2014 version of WRRDA has a somewhat lengthy legislative history. House Bill H.R. 3080, drafted by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and sponsored by Rep. Shuster from Pennsylvania, first passed the House on October 23, 2013. It passed the Senate a week later, on October 31, 2013, but with changes that sent the bill into a “conferee” process in which members from the Senate and House discuss, debate, and hammer out the final version of the bill. (The Senate companion bill had an even earlier start,  overwhelmingly passing the Senate in May 2013.) The conferee process took six months, but the final WRDDA overwhelmingly passed the House (412-4) on May 20, 2014.

WRRDA covers a range of waterway topics—from authorizing funding for construction and repair of waterways overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determining how funds paid into the Harbor Maintenance Trust (HMT) Fund by shipping companies are spent. The months of negotiation centered principally on how much authority to delegate to the Corps—the bill ultimately gives Congress a healthy role in reviewing and prioritizing development projects that will be overseen by the Corps. The $12.3 billion bill, which does not actually appropriate any money to fund its programs, should be a boost to U.S. ports and waterways by authorizing critical port deepening and flood prevention projects, and by (one hopes) imposing some common sense deadlines for studying project proposals. It also commits the majority of the HMT funds to port projects, rather than other areas of the federal budget. In the Pacific Northwest specifically, WRRDA authorizes additional funding for the Lower Columbia River Ecosystem Restoration program, and a new nation-wide program to prevent and manage aquatic invasive species that will result in new boat inspection stations in the Columbia River Basin in Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon. A good summary prepared by the House Transportation Committee is available here.