Congress Passes Comprehensive Water Legislation in Final Hours

As the 114th Congress wound down in December, it was beginning to look like the session would end as many had before it: with important water legislation left on the table.

As the 114th Congress wound down in December, it was beginning to look like the session would end as many had before it: with important water legislation left on the table. But as it turned out, that was hardly the case. In fact, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) passed at eleventh hour.

The bill was rolled into a larger compromise bill, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, along with other measures such as the Water and Waste Act and the Water Supply Cost Savings Act. Within its 700-plus pages are a vast array of provisions, but I’ll highlight a few here.

The WRDA section authorizes about $10 billion for Army Corps of Engineers projects, such as port-deepening, dredging, dam safety, and water supply initiatives across the nation. The legislation also authorizes $20 million for the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) funding program, a move that garnered strong support from water industry organizations.

“AWWA is thankful to all those members of Congress and water sector partners who championed WIFIA over the past several years,” said Tracy Mehan, AWWA executive director of government affairs, in a statement. “With more than $2 trillion needed to repair and expand water and wastewater infrastructure in the coming years, water utilities needed a smart new finance tool to help communities pay for large, critical water projects.”

It’s worth noting that WIIN does include language requiring American iron and steel (‘Buy American’) for any federally funded projects in FY 2017.

For cities dealing with lead issues, WIIN authorizes $170 million in aid to support pipe replacement, monitoring, and public health programs.

Overall, most seem pleased with the bill, touting it as a major win for bipartisanship.

“In a year where so much attention was focused on water, precipitated by the lead issue in Flint, Mich., it is gratifying to see the water community and Congress come together to support and pass this legislation,” said Vanessa Leiby, executive director of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association.

“NACWA believes that the WIIN bill exemplifies the fact that water infrastructure is a bipartisan issue,” said Adam Krantz, CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, “but much more must be done. While this bill focused on critical water supply issues, I hope wastewater treatment needs will be addressed as soon as possible in the next Congress.”

One member of Congress, concerned about a California drought rider added to the bill in its final hours, was very outspoken about her reservations. “It breaks my heart,” said retiring Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) during a floor speech. “It’s really painful for me to have to filibuster my own bill.” Her criticism of the rider centered around its temporary relaxation of environmental standards that, she said, would devastate salmon fisheries in favor of big agriculture. She argued that the WRDA bill without the rider had all of the necessary provisions to protect against drought and support alternative water supply strategies while still preserving the environment. Ultimately Senator Boxer was unable to stop the bill’s momentum.

WIIN was signed into law by President Obama on December 16. You can read more about it in Sarah Fister Gale’s feature article here.

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