What Happened with WRDA

Water Resources Development Act passed this week by an overwhelming margin. Luckily, there are some points that will benefit rivers and public safety.

The Senate wrapped up debate on S. 601, the Water Resources Development Act this week and passed the bill by an overwhelming margin of 83-14. As I mentioned previously, the Senate bill worked around the earmark ban to allow Senators to bring home the water project pork to their states. A vote like this is really no surprise on a bill that has a little bit of something for everyone.

It’s also important to point out that while some of the projects that will be built because of this bill could harm river health, there are other policy reforms and projects, like proactive river protection in the Northern Rockies that will benefit rivers and public safety. This bill is far from being signed into law.

First, the House will have to pass their own WRDA, and then the House and Senate will have to compromise on a final version before sending a final bill to the President. That means that there are still some opportunities for river advocates to improve parts of the bill and ensure it will improve river and community resilience to climate change impacts. But we’ll also have to keep standing up to those who want to weaken environmental laws.

Environmental Review Streamlining

One of the parts of the bill that is harmful to rivers is efforts to streamline environmental reviews. When the Army Corps of Engineers plans a water project, they have to consult natural resource agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service and EPA to make sure the project won’t cause environmental harm. The Senate passed WRDA alters that process and American Rivers, river advocates, and the Obama Administration, are worried it will lead to projects that damage rivers, harm public safety, or result in more litigation.

During debate of the bill, Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) led efforts to make some minor changes that would lessen the adverse impacts of the bill and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the sponsor of the bill, agreed to hold a hearing on the environmental review process to figure out if additional changes are needed to the bill.  That’s a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is expected to develop their own version of WRDA in the coming weeks and months that will likely take an even harsher approach to environmental reviews of water resource projects than the Senate bill.

Attacks on the Clean Water Act

Following two Supreme Court decisions, Clean Water Act protections for small streams and wetlands were put into question leading to a significant decline in enforcement of the Clean Water Act. Both the Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency have spent the past two years in a public and transparent process to clarify protections for waters and better ensure that our rivers, lakes, and streams are protected and restored. These agencies are expected to release guidance clarifying the scope of the Clean Water Act and restoring protections to small streams and wetlands.

There were several amendments to the WRDA bill that would have prevented this effort from moving forward and would have blocked other efforts at restoring protections to small streams and wetlands across the country. One of them, from Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) received a vote which lost 52-44. Luckily, due to Senate rules the amendment needed 60 votes to pass. We expect similar efforts to weaken Clean Water Act protections when the House develops their WRDA bill.