WRDA: Much Ado about Nothing

Dec. 1, 2007
When Congress overrode President Bush’s veto of the Water Resources Development Act, I didn’t know whether to be happy or sad.

by James Laughlin, Editor

When Congress overrode President Bush’s veto of the Water Resources Development Act, I didn’t know whether to be happy or sad. Or if I should care.

On one hand, Congress authorized funding for water projects, which is a good thing. On the other hand, the WRDA bill includes a wide variety of projects that really didn’t belong in a measure that was primarily designed to authorize funding for Army Corps of Engineers projects.

The bill, the first such measure passed by Congress since 2000, authorized more than 900 water supply, flood control, navigation, and environmental projects. It is projected to cost $11.2 billion over the next four years, and $12 billion in the 10 years after that, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The WRDA was clearly packed with pork, but most of that pork was water related. And it’s fair to say that many of the pork projects have value – at least to the local folks who benefit from them.

I live in Oklahoma and our Senator Jim Inhofe, a staunch Republican, broke ranks with Bush on this measure. In looking at the individual projects included in the WRDA, several Oklahoma lake and river projects are list. But the list also includes 15 or so water and/or wastewater projects in towns across the state. Projects range in size from $250,000 to $10 million.

I am very much aware of the challenges faced by small town utilities and have no doubt many of those local projects desperately need the money. But I struggle with the idea that a “water resources development act” should include projects to fund local water and sewer infrastructure improvements. Everyone knows municipal governments can use the money, but was this the appropriate vehicle?

On the “why should I care” front, the WRDA was an Authorization bill, not a funding measure. It simply sets out which projects and programs are allowed to get in line for future funding and sets the maximum amount of money that can be funded. Any actual funding must be approved later in an Appropriations bill. And for many of the WRDA projects, that “later” may well translate to “never.”

Approving a high-profile Authorization bill is like a shell game – now you see it and now you don’t. The local Senator or Representative can point to the measure and brag how he or she supported small town America. But the sad fact is, money for many of those smaller projects will never be appropriated.

In fact, having a local project listed in the WRDA may be a real disservice to the residents and utility operators of those cities and towns. I can easily a City Council ignoring a water utility manager’s pleas for funding, believing they are about to receive federal money for their water project. I suspect some projects will be delayed for years while they wait in vain for the money.

In the end, the hoopla surrounding passage of the WRDA was more about the upcoming election year and making points with the voters than it was about money for important environmental projects.

James Laughlin, Editor

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