Senate passes WRDA in decisive 83-14 vote

Annie Snider

E&E reporter

The Senate on May 15 accomplished what many experts had thought to be impossible, decisively clearing the first major bill authorizing new lock, dam, levee and environmental restoration in six years despite a ban on congressional earmarks.

The Water Resources Development Act (S. 601), which passed by a vote of 83-14, still faces an uphill battle in the House, where Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) has been pressing forward with work on his own bill but has made clear he is not comfortable with the Senate’s approach to avoiding earmarks. The Senate legislation automatically authorizes projects that meet a set of criteria; Shuster says that this essentially hands congressional authority to the Army Corps of Engineers to select which water resources projects should move forward.

It’s also unclear what the White House’s reaction to the bill will be. A Statement of Administration Policy last week stopped short of a veto threat but staunchly opposed the bill’s environmental streamlining provisions.

Moreover, while the Senate’s bill provides new authorizations, it does little to address the dearth of funding for water projects. There is currently a $60 billion backlog of authorized but unfunded Army Corps projects, and with the cap on the agency’s budget set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, that gap is only expected to grow.

Still, the new authorizations, which include restoration projects in the Florida Everglades and along the Gulf Coast as well as harbor expansion and flood protection projects, are much-needed, proponents say. The bill would also institute a number of policy reforms, including provisions aimed at moving toward full use of the roughly $1.6 billion collected annually by a Harbor Maintenance Tax for dredging and maintenance, shifting a larger share of the cost for rehabilitation of locks and dams to the federal government, freeing up industry funding for construction of navigation projects, and provisionally extending the length of time the federal government shares the cost of pumping sand to beach protection projects.

And despite vehement objections from more than 100 green groups, as well as lawyers and state wetlands and floodplain managers, the bill passed with provisions aimed at speeding up the environmental review process. The provisions would make the corps the lead agency for the process. It would fine resource agencies for missed deadlines and would establish a mechanism for elevating disputes between agencies up the chain of command.

Opponents of these provisions were particularly frustrated because they were staunchly backed by their usual ally, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the bill. In the end, greens won a minor concession in an amendment from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) that passed yesterday by unanimous consent, which would sunset the provisions after 10 years. But with the Republican-controlled House up next in the legislative process, environmentalists say they are starting from a down position.

“The so-called ‘streamlining provisions’ strike at the heart of environmental protections that have been in place for four decades,” Melissa Samet, senior water resources counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, said by email. “They add multiple layers of red tape to project reviews and are likely to slow those reviews down rather than speed them up. The end result will be more flooding, damaged rivers, and higher costs to taxpayers. This bill needs to be fixed before it becomes law.”

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) had planned to offer an amendment that would have sunset the provisions after five years, but he agreed this morning not to after Boxer committed to holding a hearing on similar provisions that were instituted under last year’s surface transportation bill.

“Make no mistake, these provisions are still a very risky move,” Udall said on the floor. But, he told Boxer, “because you’re working with me on this, I’m not going to move forward.”