By Patrick Crow
With time running short this session, water groups are pressing Congress hard to pass the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).
The omnibus bill is politically popular because it authorizes funding for a number of big-ticket Army Corps of Engineers construction projects across the nation. WRDA legislation theoretically is reauthorized every two years - but not always - and provides support for navigation, flood control, dam safety, and other projects.
Water organizations are lobbying for the bill because the Senate version would initiate several programs to help communities and schools upgrade their drinking water infrastructure, thus reducing public health threats related to lead.
Although the House bill is much narrower, the expectation is that if the WRDA bills clear both chambers, then a House-Senate conference committee would have the latitude to compromise on a final bill that could include some of the Senate bill’s drinking water funding provisions.
The looming problem is the calendar. Congress will sit during September and then adjourn so legislators can campaign for reelection. Lobbyists expect that Congress initially will focus on bills to fund the federal government, since the new fiscal year will begin Oct. 1. That likely would shunt consideration of WRDA to an expected post-election, lame-duck session, when Congress typically focuses on essential but noncontroversial legislation.
In July, a coalition of 16 water and municipal organizations urged the House of Representatives to pass its WRDA bill. “Time is running short to enact the bill this year and maintain its two-year authorization cycle,” they warned. The 16 had sent a similar message to the Senate during June.
Water groups in the ad-hoc coalition included the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, the American Water Works Association, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), the National Association of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies, the National Rural Water Association, the Water Environment and Reuse Foundation, the Water Environment Federation, the Water Research Foundation, and the WaterReuse Association.
The Senate’s WRDA bill (S. 2848) was a partial reaction to the Flint, Mich., water mishap that allowed lead in service lines to contaminate some drinking water supplies (see Flint Water Crisis Spurs Federal Legislation, Rules, WaterWorld, April 2016).
The measure includes $100 million of assistance to Flint through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF). It also would jumpstart the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) pilot program with $70 million in funding.
Supporters of the WIFIA provision said the Environmental Protection Agency would be able to leverage the WIFIA funding into at least $700 million worth of loans to communities nationwide.
The Senate WRDA bill would cost $4.8 billion in its first five years and $10.6 billion over the 2017-26 timeframe. The Congressional Budget Office has calculated that savings from the legislation would offset its costs by about $6 million over the 10-year span.
The narrower House bill (H.R. 5303) would authorize 28 Corps of Engineers projects at a cost of nearly $5 billion over 10 years. It has a provision, proposed by NACWA, to increase coordination between the Corps and municipal stormwater agencies.
The House and Senate bills differ broadly due to the jurisdictions of the committees drafting them. If legislators fail to enact legislation this year, the WRDA process would start anew when the next Congress convenes in January.
About the Author: Patrick Crow covered the U.S. Congress and federal agencies for 21 years as a reporter for industry magazines. He has reported on water issues for the past 15 years. Crow is now an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer.