Water Resources Bill Brings New Challenges for River ProtectionMay 22nd, 2014
Eileen Fretz Shader Flood Policy Director, American Rivers (202-347-7550)
Washington – The Senate voted today to approve HR 3080, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA). The bill, which President Obama is expected to sign, makes major changes to how Army Corps of Engineers water projects are reviewed under cornerstone environmental laws.
“WRRDA is a mixed bag for rivers,” said Bob Irvin, President of American Rivers. “On the one hand, it will be more difficult to challenge harmful water projects. On the other hand, there are a couple of important river restoration initiatives in the bill.”
“River conservationists across the nation will face new challenges as they fight to protect rivers from harmful water projects. Passage of HR 3080 will result in shorter public comment periods, cursory reviews of project impacts, and a reduced time period for filing legal challenges. The public will have to engage early and often to make sure water projects don’t bring undue harm to river health, clean water, and wildlife,” said Irvin.
Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) projects for flood risk management, navigation, and other purposes can have an enormous impact on rivers, at a huge cost to the federal taxpayer. Natural resource agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service review these projects to ensure impacts are minimized and they comply with environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
WRRDA shifts control of these environmental review processes from resource agencies to the Corps and local project sponsors, shortens deadlines for public comment and agency reviews, levies fines for resource agencies unable to meet deadlines, and reduces the statute of limitations for legal challenges to harmful projects from six years to three. These changes have the potential to seriously undermine environmental review of Corps projects.
Despite these provisions, WRRDA does emphasize the importance of investing in water infrastructure – which is especially critical as infrastructure ages and the impacts of climate change increase. For example, WRRDA establishes a federal credit assistance program that has the potential to provide needed investment in water infrastructure if implemented properly. American Rivers will work with the EPA, the Corps, and interested stakeholders to ensure that the program prioritizes cost-effective projects that protect clean water, and minimizes harmful impacts to rivers and the communities that depend on them.
One bright spot in WRRDA is a section authorizing river restoration projects in the Northern Rockies, where the Corps will pursue strongly supported natural approaches to mitigating the impacts of extreme weather.
“This provision will provide a triple bottom line for the Northern Rockies states by mitigating the impacts of droughts and floods, bolstering fish and wildlife, and saving taxpayer dollars. Recent polling on this issue found that three-quarters of Montanans prefer using natural approaches to mitigate the impacts of floods and drought as opposed to building new dams and levees,” said Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies Director for American Rivers.