Water Bill Introduced in U.S. Senate

A Senate committee unveiled the much-awaited legislation, saying it would offer states and localities tools to improve ports, the water supply and flood control.
March 20, 2013

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unveiled its much-awaited water bill Tuesday, saying it will streamline projects and offer states and localities tools to leverage their investments.

The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) will increase flexibility for non-federal sponsors of projects, like states, essentially speeding up project delivery, according to Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. During a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, Boxer, who chairs the committee, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had pledged to move WRDA to the floor in April or May.

The last WRDA authorization, which involved U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects that deal with flood control, navigation and environmental restoration projects, was introduced in 2007. Congress ultimately overrode a veto by President George W. Bush, who raised questions about fiscal discipline, to pass it.

Boxer, along with the committee's ranking member Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, announced the latest legislation just hours after the the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released a report citing the need for more investment in America's infrastructure.

ASCE's study, in particular, gave its worst marks to the country's system of levees and inland waterways, both of which are addressed by the WRDA bill.

The legislation also includes reforms to the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, making it easier for ports to access money to make much-needed improvements.

"We're happy to see it moving forward, especially because a lot of people thought you couldn't have a WRDA bill that's not all earmarks," said Susan Monteverde, vice president of government relations at the American Association of Port Authorities.

Port advocates have complained that the trust fund, which gets its money from a tax on imports, has been allowed to build a balance in order to mask federal deficits and fund other projects unrelated to ports. They argue they need that money -- the surplus is more than $5.6 billion as of a year ago -- to make critical improvements.

The legislation also debuts a program dubbed the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), which would help non-federal entities -- like state and local governments -- borrow money for water infrastructure upgrades. The $50 million annual program, proposed as a pilot, would provide loans and loan guarantees to governments pursuing water supply, wastewater and flood control projects.

The American Water Works Association, whose members include public water utilities, is a long-time advocate of WIFIA and has previously praised Boxer's earlier attempts at passing WIFIA.

Vitter and Boxer both predicted that the pilot, modeled on a much-larger surface transportation program called TIFIA, would have bipartisan support.

Boxer said the WRDA legislation's final price tag won't be known until after it's marked up and scored by the Congressional Budge Office. Both she and Vitter, however, said it won't exceed that of its predecessor, which authorized $23 billion worth of projects.

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