New WRDA, Same Old Congress

The Big Sunflower River, MS would have been severely damaged by the yazoo pumps | © Louie Miller

The Big Sunflower River, MS would have been severely damaged by the Yazoo pumps project | © Louie Miller

This week, the Senate is debating a bill called the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), S 601 [PDF], that will tell the Army Corps of Engineers what water infrastructure to build on our nation’s rivers and coasts. WRDA is usually a long list of flood control, navigation, water supply, ecosystem restoration projects that Congress wants built, but, the earmark ban means Members have had to find more creative ways to bring home the bacon.

This opportunity for creativity has its pros and cons. On the plus side the Senate bill, S. 601, instructs the Corps to undertake some positive changes to river management. The bill:

  • Improves operations at Corps dams which will allow flexibility to benefit river health
  • Establishes a National Levee Safety Program, which will educate people living behind levees about their risk, and fund nonstructural activities or levee setbacks
  • Increases funding to help local communities plan flood mitigation activities
  • Authorizes an innovative financing pilot program to fund clean water and flood mitigation projects.
  • Allows the Corps to engage in pro-active floodplain protection and restoration activities to prevent future damages from extreme weather events in the Northern Rockies.

Unfortunately, there are also some concerning proposals in the bill (Sec. 2033, Project Acceleration) that could allow rubber stamping of bad Corps projects in the future. When the Corps plans a project, they are required to consult other agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service or EPA to determine whether the project would harm the environment. It’s a useful process for improving a project design, or even stop the most environmentally harmful projects. Without the ability for natural resource agencies to disagree with a project, a project like the Yazoo pumps would have succeeded in draining up to 200,000 acres of floodplain wetlands at a cost of $220 million.

Unfortunately, instead of encouraging a system of collaboration between agencies, the Project Acceleration proposal creates an antagonistic relationship by fining agencies if they miss a deadline. When a natural resource agency raises an objection to a project, the dispute could be taken all the way to the President to be resolved.

Supporters of the Project Acceleration proposal claim it will speed up projects that are unnecessarily held up at the Corps. But it doesn’t address the real issue that delays Corps of Engineers projects- too many projects and not enough money to build them all. The Corps has a backlog of more than 1,000 authorized studies and projects, which would cost more than $60 billion to construct. With an annual budget around $5 billion, the Corps simply can’t build everything Congress has already told them to build. And this WRDA will add at least $12 billion worth of activities to their to-do list.

Luckily, some improvements were made to the Project Acceleration section after concerns were raised by Conservation groups and the Obama Administration [PDF]. However, it’s still far from perfect and hopefully additional improvements can be made when the bill is debated this week. We’ll also be keeping an eye out for any harmful amendments that would harm our nation’s rivers.

Update: May 15, 2013

We need your help to ensure Congress protects our nation’s rivers.

Now is the time to TAKE ACTION and tell Congress not to weaken the environmental review process!

Update: May 10, 2013

Here’s several of the amendments that could receive a vote next week and American Rivers’ position on each:

Amendments to Improve Environmental Review Process, Section 2033

  • Support Amendment #861 by Senator Cardin: This amendment will ensure that issue resolution and elevation occurs based on just and sound reasons. There are instances in which the elevation of an issue dispute between agencies is necessary to address differences, this amendment will ensure the elevation process is not abused and is only used when warranted.
  • Support Amendment #851 by Senators Tom Udall, Cardin, Heinrich, and Cowen: This amendment would postpone the implementation of Section 2033 until the real source of Corps project delays- the $60 Billion backlog of authorized Corps water resources projects- is reduced to $20 Billion.
  • Support Amendment #853 by Senators Tom Udall, Cowen, Heinrich, Warren, Cardin, Bennett, Rockefeller, Blumenthal, Gillibrand, Lautenberg, Leahy, and Mark Udall: This amendment would establish the study and project acceleration as a pilot program for 5 years to assess the benefits of the project acceleration process.

Attacks on the Clean Water Act

  • Oppose Amendment #809 by Senator Paul: This amendment, the REINS Act aims to destroy a century’s worth of progress in environmental and other protections that work to keep people healthy and safe. This amendment gives unprecedented ability to both chambers to block or delay critical safeguards that protect the environment and public health.
  • Oppose Amendment #810, Senator Paul: This amendment would significantly weaken the Clean Water Act, limiting protections for streams and wetlands across the country that are a source of drinking water and provide protection against devastating floods for many communities.
  • Oppose Amendment #846 by Senator Manchin: This amendment undermines the EPA’s ability under the Clean Water Act to veto permits for dredge and fill activities such as mountaintop removal mining, that discharge dredge and fill materials into rivers and streams when the activities will have a significantly adverse effect on drinking water, fisheries, wildlife, or recreational areas.
  • Oppose Amendment #850 by Senator Manchin: This amendment turns the clock back on the Clean Water Act, undermining the careful balance of shared state and federal responsibility for water quality standards and permits that limit discharges of pollutants into our waters. It would also remove EPA’s critical yet scarcely used authority to stop Section 404 permits for harmful projects that discharge dredge and fill materials into rivers, lakes, and streams.
  • Oppose Amendment #868 by Senator Barrasso: This amendment would prevent the EPA and the Corps from clarifying the scope of the Clean Water Act and restoring protections to small streams and wetlands. Following two Supreme Court decisions, protections for these waters were put into question leading to a significant decline in enforcement of the Clean Water Act.

Other Amendments

  • Oppose Amendment #849 by Senators Rubio, Sessions, Shelby and Nelson: This amendment would address water supply disputes in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin using a one sided approach that could have major repercussions all over the country, particularly in the southeast and in the West. In addition it could inadvertently encourage costly and damaging reservoir building rather than optimization of existing water supply resources.
  • Support Amendment #839 by Senator Gillibrand: This amendment would provide states and local communities with the tools and information needed to prepare for extreme weather events while utilizing and building on existing preparedness efforts and optimizing current funding.
  • Oppose Amendment #802, by Senators Landrieu and Vitter: This amendment would postpone common sense reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program that are needed to better protect those in harm’s way, the environment, and US taxpayers. A preferable solution to delaying reforms is for Congress to implement a mechanism to deal with affordability issues for those who truly can’t afford flood insurance requirements.
  • Support Amendment #836, by Senator Reed: This amendment would authorize a common sense study of voluntary community-based flood insurance concepts. These concepts would encourage community wide flood mitigation activities and broader flood insurance coverage. This study has passed the House multiple times, but was unfortunately eliminated from the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act.