River Policy Update: 2011 Wrap-Up

Welcome to the first edition of the new and improved “River Policy Update”!

This monthly blog series will provide comprehensive and timely updates on federal laws and policies affecting rivers across the country. If you’d like to receive the policy update each month by email, sign up here and fill out the survey to let us know what you’d like to see.

2011 was a very defensive year for those of us in DC trying to ensure our nation’s rivers are clean, free-flowing, and protected for future generations. Environmental laws and funding were in the sights of Members of Congress intent on rolling back these protections. Unfortunately 2012 promises more of the same. Follow this blog for regular updates on how the actions in DC will affect your rivers.

River Protection 
Progress was made in the last couple months of 2011 to designate new Wild and Scenic Rivers. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved bills to designate the Middle Snoqualmie and Pratt Rivers (H.R. 608/S. 322) and Illabot Creek (H.R. 1740/S. 888) in Washington, as well as bills to designate rivers in Oregon’s Devil’s Staircase Wilderness (H.R. 1413/S. 766) and the Oregon Caves Nat’l Monument (H.R. 1414/S. 765). These bills are now in a position to be voted on in the Senate or more likely, to be included in an omnibus public lands bill later in 2012. American Rivers was also thrilled to see the introduction of a new bill (H.R. 3436/S. 2001) to protect tributaries of the Rogue River in both the House and Senate.

Unfortunately, a precedent setting bill that would rollback protections for a Wild and Scenic River also progressed in recent months. A bill (H.R. 850/S. 1134) that would waive the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in order to construct a massive, overpriced bridge over the St. Croix Scenic Riverway was rammed through the Senate in the early hours of the 2012 session and the House could vote on this bill early in 2012.  

River Restoration
Following the epic flooding of 2011, hearings were held to identify ways to prevent future flood losses on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. These hearings brought to light old conflicts between the many stakeholders along these rivers and showcased the difficulty in managing for many purposes that are often at odds. We’re hopeful that a comprehensive approach to flood management will prevail and that the flood management benefits of restoring floodplains will be a part of the solution.

One issue we’ve seen significant progress is reform of the National Flood Insurance Program. This program was initially created to reduce the financial impact of floods, and was expected to deter additional development in the floodplain. Unfortunately, flaws in the program have resulted in increased development in the floodplain which harms rivers, puts more people at risk, and costs the taxpayers billions. The House passed the Flood Insurance Reform Act (H.R. 1309) in July, and the Senate Banking Committee reported their bill (S. 1940) in December. Both bills make some vital reforms to the program, and we are hopeful for a final bill that incorporates the strongest pieces of each. 

Clean Water
The Green Infrastructure for Clean Water Act (H.R. 2030, S. 1115) was introduced in 2011 to establish Centers of Excellence to conduct research and share information about green infrastructure, create planning and implementation grants, and require the EPA to integrate green infrastructure solutions into its programs. A bill (H.R. 2939) to limit the amount of pharmaceuticals entering our waterways by establishing a drug take-back program was introduced as well. Dedicated funding for green infrastructure, water efficiency, and environmentally innovative projects under the State Revolving Funds was continued.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) held a hearing on the challenges facing our water infrastructure from lack of investment opportunity to outdated and ineffective pipes. The hearing also explored possible opportunities with alternative approaches to water infrastructure such as green infrastructure and innovative financing.  The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a subsequent hearing on EPA’s proposed efforts to better integrate planning and permitting requirements for stormwater and wastewater. Smarter investments in water quality can save communities money and protect clean water.

Despite these successes, clean water protections were hit hard in 2011. Bills like the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act (H.R. 2018) and the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act (H.R. 872) were introduced that would roll back Clean Water Act protections. Appropriations legislation for fiscal year 2012 contained multiple dirty water riders such as an amendment to prohibit the Army Corps of Engineers from clarifying the scope of the Clean Water Act. With the help of groups across the country, efforts to keep these dirty water riders out of the final legislation were largely successful. Unfortunately, clean water protections and funding for clean water programs will continue to be a target in the upcoming year.

Coming Up in February
Congress returned to Washington, DC at the end of January and we may see some action on a transportation bill and the continuation of the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline. In early February, the Administration will release the President’s Budget Request for fiscal year 2013.