Water Resources Reform and Development Act poised to pass Congress

West Sacramento setback levee construction | U.S. Army Photo/Michael J. Nevins

West Sacramento setback levee construction | U.S. Army Photo/Michael J. Nevins

A water resources bill that combines the House and Senate versions of the Water Resources Development Act is scheduled to soar through Congress with little opposition this week. The compromise bill, H.R. 3080 will authorize 34 new projects for the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and change the way the agency will plan and build water projects like levees, navigation channels and ecosystem restoration in the future. Members from both sides of the aisle will cheer this bill and infrastructure interest groups will celebrate all the jobs created.

But for river conservationists the work of watchdogging how this bill will affect their rivers is just getting started.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), has traditionally been a huge list of projects that Congress members want the Army Corps of Engineers to study and build in their states and districts. The earmark ban put an end to listing projects and Congress has had to get creative in order to bring home the water pork. They succeeded in H.R. 3080 and will send Corps work to every state and give just about every Member something to vote for.

During debate this week the bill’s authors will also boast about the “reforms” in this bill. They claim that it will result in faster planning and construction of water projects with more local input over projects. Unfortunately, the cost of speed and streamlining may be that some projects will cause more harm to rivers. Some of the “reforms” in WRRDA that could result in projects that harm rivers:

  • WRRDA places the Corps in charge of environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws. The Corps will dictate when the public and resource agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service must make decisions about proposed projects. If the agency is not able to meet a deadline it will be hit with hefty fines. The most likely outcome is that agencies will rubber stamping projects or they’ll simply deny projects if they don’t have time or resources to complete adequate reviews- two options that could result in increased legal challenges.
  • WRRDA will allow the non-federal sponsor (usually a state or local community) to carry out studies and construction of projects, to be a “joint lead agency” during environmental review process, and to undertake operations and maintenance actions. It also requires the Corps to implement the locally preferred alternative for flood control projects even if it’s not in the best interest of the nation or neighboring communities. Whether these changes will be harmful to rivers will depend on the project and the goals of the non-federal sponsor.
  • WRRDA increases the cost trigger for Independent Peer Review of projects from $45M to $200M. This could dramatically reduce the number of projects subjected to an independent peer review which is necessary to ensure the Corps is wisely spending taxpayer funding. Many controversial projects cost less than $200M. For example the controversial St. Johns- New Madrid Floodway project, which earned the middle Mississippi River a spot on the 2014 America’s Most Endangered Rivers® list, is estimated to cost $164M.

Despite these concerns, there are many provisions in the WRRDA that will provide benefits to rivers and river communities. American Rivers applauds Congress for including provisions including:

  • Northern Rockies Headwaters: A study and implementation of restoration and extreme weather mitigation activities in the Northern Rockies Headwaters. This unique project will focus on floodplain restoration, channel migration mapping, riparian easements, in-stream flow restoration and other natural approaches to managing floods and droughts.
  • Levee Vegetation: Requires the Corps to review and revise their policy that prohibits trees on levees. These revisions will ensure that regional variations in soil, hydrology, ecosystems, etc. will be considered when evaluating the effect of trees on levees rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. This will help address issues in the Northwest and California where trees are often included in levee design. They provide levee stability and salmon habitat.
  • Emergency Levee Repairs: Requires the Corps to review their policy for rebuilding levees damaged during a storm including the use of nonstructural approaches like the use of wetlands and floodplains rather than rebuilding to inadequate pre-flood standards.

The House is scheduled to vote on H.R. 3080 on Tuesday, May 20th, and the Senate will quickly follow. The bill is expected to pass both chambers easily. Then the hard work of ensuring that the reforms and projects in WRRDA will not cause unnecessary harm to our nation’s rivers. We continue to evaluate changes to water infrastructure financing and their impact to clean, healthy rivers across the country. Over the next few years all river conservationists should keep a close eye on Corps projects on their local rivers.

3 Responses to “Water Resources Reform and Development Act poised to pass Congress”

Alison McGillivray

I am wondering how/if this BILL might change possible funding of Rivekeeper Projects in the USA or such grassroots hands-on initiatives like http://mniwater.org and their water sustainability camp his June/July.

    Eileen Fretz Shader

    Hi Allison, it’s hard to say for sure without knowing more about the specific projects you’re interested in or involved in. WRRDA applies to Corps of Engineers projects so I’m not sure it will have much effect on the grassroots initiatives you mention.