Water Sector Awaits WRDA Approval in Congress

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The House of Representatives approved the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016 last week.

Earlier this month, the House of Representatives approved the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016 (H.R. 5303). The bill is comprehensive, bipartisan legislation to address the needs of America’s harbors, locks, dams, flood protection and other water resources infrastructure.

The legislation passed the House by a vote of 399 to 25.

The bill is narrowly focused on authorizing U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects and studies and does not include provisions found in the Senate-approved WRDA bill (S. 2848) that would appropriate Flint relief and water infrastructure dollars through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) and the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA). The absence of any Flint aid from the bill prompted House Democrats to threaten to vote against both H.R. 5303 and a continuing resolution necessary to avoid a government shutdown.

The compromise that emerged last week came in the form of an amendment from Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) authorizing the Army Corps to provide up to $170 million in infrastructure assistance to Flint and other communities facing public health emergencies due to drinking water contamination.  The amendment would not actually appropriate funding and indications are that it may simply function as a placeholder to demonstrate the House’s support for some degree of Flint assistance when conference negotiations on a final WRDA bill get underway.  When the final WRDA bill is written, it appears much more likely that lawmakers will use the Senate-approved DWSRF and WIFIA funding language as a basis for Flint and water infrastructure assistance.  As approved by the Senate, $100 million would be made available to Flint through the DWSRF, while an additional $70 million in credit subsidy would go to WIFIA to support water infrastructure loans to communities nationwide.

“This bill is fundamental to America’s competitiveness, and gets Congress back to the regular business of addressing some of our most pressing infrastructure needs,” said Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), sponsor of the legislation. “An efficient maritime and waterways transportation system is fundamental to the country’s economy. The process reforms Congress put in place in the 2014 water resources bill are working. Enacting a WRDA bill every two years is essential to maintaining an efficient transportation system, moving commerce effectively, and promoting economic growth throughout the country.”

“Water infrastructure is a key component to our nation’s transportation and logistics network,” said Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), cosponsor of H.R. 5303. “A reliable port and inland waterway system ensures goods can move quickly and affordably to facilitate trade and benefit American consumers. This bill utilizes the reforms from WRRDA 2014, using a transparent process driven by local stakeholders and promoting fiscal responsibility by fully offsetting costs with deauthorization of outdated projects.”

The Senate version of H.R. 5303 passed earlier in September, and includes funds to jump-start the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) pilot program, emergency funding for Flint and new assistance to help schools and communities remove lead that has leached from service lines and plumbing fixtures.

WRDA 2016 contains no earmarks, maintains the strong bipartisan reforms included in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, and adheres to the new transparent process established in that law for congressional review of proposed Corps of Engineers water resources development activities.

Following the oversight and review process set forth in the 2014 law, WRDA 2016 authorizes infrastructure improvements that have been proposed at the local level, reviewed by the Corps according to strict Congressionally established criteria, and submitted to Congress for consideration.

“The House and Senate now need to finish their work and send a final WRDA measure to the President before the end of the year,” said Shuster. “We can’t afford to delay this critical bill.”

The final bill is currently being negotiated by a House-Senate conference committee. According to the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA), should conference committee negotiations proceed smoothly, lawmakers could vote on a final WRDA bill soon after returning to Washington in November.

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