House adds water infrastructure bill to pile of unfinished business

Curtis Tate

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives introduced their version of a bill Wednesday to move forward work on an array of water projects across the country, legislation that traditionally sails through Congress on a bipartisan basis.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act, the first such bill in six years, would authorize repair and improvements to dams and levees, the deepening of harbors and navigation channels, and flood control and coastal protection projects.

With the Atlantic and Gulf coasts reeling from the impact of hurricanes, locks and dams deteriorating on Midwestern rivers, East Coast ports needing to accommodate bigger ships and the threat of catastrophic floods in major cities, the legislation serves many critical needs.

“It’s not a regional issue, it’s a national priority,” Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told a news conference at the Capitol.

The Senate overwhelmingly approved its version of the bill in May by 83-14, and Shuster and his House colleagues expressed confidence Wednesday that their legislation would succeed.

“The bill has been a bipartisan bill from day one,” he said.

But with the capital consumed by sharp divisions over fiscal policy, foreign policy and immigration, passage of the latest bill is no guarantee. A farm bill, for example, cleared the Senate on a bipartisan vote earlier this summer but went down to defeat in the House, embarrassing leaders on both sides of the aisle.

The House is adding the water legislation to a pile of unfinished business, including the farm bill, immigration reform and the debt limit.

The House water and infrastructure bill is designed to speed up the approval process for the projects it authorizes, amid complaints from state and local governments that environmental reviews lead to increased delays and costs.

“It really attacks the cost issue,” said Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, chairman of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. “Time is money.”

The bill limits the time and cost for such studies to three years and $3 million, and sunsets project authorizations after seven years. Both provisions are aimed at clearing a backlog of needed work.

In a move designed to satisfy the most fiscally conservative members of the House, the bill contains no earmarks – funds usually set aside for pet projects in lawmakers’ states and districts – and aims to find $12 billion in cost offsets by de-authorizing projects that have not moved forward.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the transportation committee’s ranking member, said the goal was to have a bill authorizing water projects every two years. Congress approved the last water resources bill in 2007.

“We’ve been too long without a bill,” he said.

The committee could consider the bill early next week and the House could vote on it by early October.

“I urge the House to move quickly so that we can reconcile the House and Senate approaches and get a water resources development bill to the president’s desk,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who led a similar bill to Senate passage, said in a statement.

The legislation has been a top priority for Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., who represents the flood-prone Sacramento region. It authorizes the completion of the Natomas Levee Improvement Project, a $1.4 billion effort to protect California’s capital from a 200-year flood, and end a federal moratorium on new construction in the floodplain.

“The people of Sacramento have waited long enough,” she said in a statement Wednesday. “Now is the time to move forward with legislation that will authorize” the levee project.

The House bill also includes another of Matsui’s priorities: a provision asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reconsider a policy of vegetation management on levee systems that she and environmental groups have said worsens erosion. Matsui wants the corps to modify the policy to recognize the needs of different regions instead of applying the same policy everywhere.

Ron Stork, policy director of Friends of the River, a California river conservation group, said the language in the House bill doesn’t tell the corps to stop eliminating levee vegetation, forcing agencies that work with the corps to follow the current guidelines.

“The erosion protection and community amenities offered by trees and shrubs near many California and U.S. waterways will remain at risk,” Stork said in an email.

Still, Matsui said it was time to move forward with legislation she’s been pushing in Congress for more than two years.

“It is time to fix and strengthen America’s levees,” she said. “We cannot let this important legislative effort linger any longer.”

By Curtis Tate
McClatchy Washington Bureau