Just over a year ago President Obama signed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA) into law. It was the first major water resources bill Congress passed in nearly seven years. Historically, major water resources bills were signed on a two year cycle, but partisanship and a ban on congressional earmarks made the legislation increasingly difficult to pass. Below are some of the major provisions of the law and how far along they have come in the last year.
Levee and Dam Safety Programs
WRRDA reauthorized the National Dam Safety Program and establishes a Levee Safety Initiative. The Dam Safety Program was last authorized in 2006 and the levee program expands an existing program beyond federally owned levees. WRRDA authorizes $13.9 million annually for the dam program which provides grants to states for activities such as inspections, training programs and public safety awareness campaigns. The levee program is authorized at $79 million annually and charges FEMA and the Army Corps to inventory the estimated 10,000 miles of levees across the country and develop consistent guidelines for designing, building, operating and maintaining the vital flood control structures. For both programs, we recommend full congressional appropriation. While new appropriations are negotiated, the Corps and FEMA should rely on WRRDA authorization and existing funds to set these up.
Water Infrastructure Finance Innovative Authority
WRRDA establishes a new lending program called the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers for major water resources projects. The program works cooperatively with the Department of Treasury and is modeled off the popular transportation lending program TIFIA. EPA has so far embraced the program and has held a series of informational webinars on its progress and is reportedly hiring staff to oversee the program. The 2015 omnibus appropriations bill gave EPA $2.2 million in administrative costs to get the program up and running and the recently released FY16 draft House EPA appropriations bill provides $4.2 million over two years. The Army Corps has yet to provide any public information on their efforts to start the program and recent Corps appropriations bills make no mention of the program. One thing we’re keeping an eye out on are efforts to remove the prohibition on using tax-exempt bonds to fund the 51% of project cost not eligible for funding through WIFIA.
Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and Inland Waterway Trust Fund
Arguably two programs to make the most headway following the passage of WRRDA are the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) and Inland Water Way Trust Fund (IWTF). WRRDA provided important fixes to these two programs desperately needed to meet demands placed on our on waterway transportation systems. First, WRRDA set new target appropriations for the HMFT, which both the House and Senate hit in their FY16 funding bills. Previously Congress only appropriated a fraction of the funds collected back into related O&M activities. On the inland side, the biggest progress made since WRRDA was actually a result of a late 2014 December bill that extended numerous tax benefits set to expire at the end of the year. Stuffed in that bill was a 9-cent increase to the barge diesel fuel user fee which funds the IWTF. The increase was widely supported by the inland waterway community.
Clean Water State Revolving Fund
WRRDA made several changes to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF). The new CWSRF provisions provide loan flexibility, lower interest rates and extended repayment periods of 30 years. CWSRF funds may also now be used to implement watershed plans, water conservation, stormwater recapture, and for technical assistance to small and medium treatment works. Reports from the field show the expansion of eligible activities are being utilized. ASCE and other stakeholders also advocated for Qualifications Based Selection (QBS) requirements in the update, which were ultimately adopted in EPA’s implementation guidance to its regional offices.
Army Corps of Engineers Project Prioritization
Identifying water resources projects ripe for federal investment in the era of earmark bans has proved to be a headache for Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers. To comply with the self-imposed ban, WRRDA Sec. 7001 requires the Corps produce an annual project list for Congress which outlines potential new authorizations. Because the list originates with the Administration rather than with Congress, the process complies with the earmark ban. The Corps released its first report in February, which was front and center at a House Transportation and Infrastructure committee hearing last week. According to testimony by Rep. Gibbs, Congress envisioned a process where nonfederal sponsors would recommend projects to the Corps, which would be included in the list so long as the federal government had some jurisdiction over the project. The issue is only 19 of the 114 projects identified by nonfederal sponsors were included in the report—the rest were relegated to an appendix and according to some congressional lawyers are therefore not eligible for funding. It’s likely Congress will provide cleared instructions on 7001 in the next WRRDA; in the meantime all eyes are on the Army Corps and White House Office of Management and Budget, which also has oversight over the list.
As described above, a lot has been done in the last year since WRRDA was signed. While this may help tick up the ASCE Report Card for Americas Infrastructure Cumulative Grade of D+, much work lay ahead. There is still a $60 billion backlog of projects at the Army Corps and skepticism remains that WRRDA’s public private partnership can help reduce that backlog. President Obama’s proposal for new public infrastructure financing still needs support in Congress. We hope Congress will stick to its goal of passing a WRRDA every two years. In the meantime, they should appropriate funds for the programs that were authorized in the last WRRDA 2014.
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