Water resources development: The long and winding road

Though the 112th Congress is coming to an end this month, interest and appreciation in Congress for the Nation’s water resources infrastructure programs of the Army Corps of Engineers is increasing. Long-time Corps watchers are optimistic that Congress will finally move legislation in the next Congress, hopefully in 2013.

Water basin protecting Harris County, TX made possible by the 1996 WRDA (Photo courtesy of Harris County Flood Control District)


Historically, Congress has authorized Corps water projects through legislation referred to as Water Resources Development Acts (or “WRDAs”). The last WRDA was enacted in 2007 and efforts to pass subsequent legislation have failed primarily by the Congressional moratorium on “earmarks.” In an effort to curb Federal spending and address the perception that Members of Congress were pursuing unjustified projects, Congress adopted broad moratoriums on virtually any spending, project authorization, or tax provision requested by a Member of Congress.

An unfortunate consequence is that even the most thoroughly vetted and justified proposal gets caught up by the same prohibition. The unfortunate result has been that worthy as well as wasteful projects have been held up.

There is a growing recognition (and frustration) in Congress that projects fully documented as being in the public interest are stymied by this “earmark” prohibition. This includes numerous projects that meet the “gold standard” of a favorable report from the Corps’ Chief of Engineers (validating economic, technical and environmental merits) and that provide public safety improvements by reducing flood and hurricane damage.

Yet such projects cannot move forward. Similarly, projects that would yield significant economic development and job-creation benefits by improving the Nation’s commercial ports and waterways are held up.

The prospects for reform are improving. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held three hearings this fall to address WRDA legislation. The Committee also published draft legislation to allow meritorious projects to move forward while still being compliant with the limitations on earmarks. Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer has signaled her intent to move a WRDA early in 2013; she is joined in that intent by the Committee’s Ranking Minority Member, Senator David Vitter.

Meanwhile, incoming Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Representative Bill Shuster, has listed WRDA as one of his top priorities for the new Congress as well. He and the Committee Ranking Minority Member, Representative Nick Rahall, are anticipated to work collaboratively on this measure.

These Congressional leaders are all taking exceptional initiative to address this ongoing problem. We’ll look forward to reporting progress in the coming months.

Michael Strachn Senior Advisor

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