Congress and Water Projects in America: The Latest on the Water Resources Development Act

Two weeks ago the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee reported the Water Resources Development Act of 2013 (WRDA), which is the main vehicle for authorizing billions of dollars worth of water projects to be studied, planned, and constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Susquehanna River. Flickr photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli.
The Committee quickly approved S. 601 with a handful of amendments that were introduced and approved before the vote. This process took only fifteen minutes. That’s right: in less time than it takes for me to take a shower, Senators voted on a bill that would authorize significant spending on projects and mandate substantial policy changes.

The introduction of WRDA this year could be considered an accomplishment, but I completely disagree. Yes, it’s great that after five years Congress is finally initiating another WRDA. This bill offers an opportunity to improve Corps practices and protect taxpayers. Unfortunately, this bill does not adequately address the significant water resource challenges facing America. As with most things in life, the devil is in the details…

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Provisions

White ibises in the Turner River, in the Florida Everglades. Flickr photo by Chauncey Davis.
Now I must stress, this bill does have some good components. In fact, it would allow important progress on restoration for America’s Everglades and Coastal Louisiana. But it lacks crucial Army Corps reforms to improve the way the Corps plans and operates its projects.

The most alarming provisions streamline the environmental review process (section 2032 and 2033), including reviews mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and, and the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act. Do not be fooled by this terminology, ‘streamlining’ in this case does not imply efficiency.

These changes will actually make it harder to protect the environment and public safety by forcing resource agencies, such as the Corps and EPA, to wade through a bureaucratic nightmare every time they object to any element of a project.  These provisions are a clear attack on the critically important National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws.

Yes, more projects would get out the door, but how many environmentally destructive and wasteful projects would be rubber-stamped? If there isn’t meticulous and timely examination of Corps projects, we could jeopardize our nation’s water quality, floodplains, and vital fish and wildlife habitat. In the end, a policy that was designed to speed up the process and reduce costs could very well cost the American taxpayers billions of dollars to clean up the mess

Another disconcerting provision is Fish and Wildlife Mitigation (Sec. 2005) which creates a significant mitigation loophole by allowing the Secretary of theCorps to ignore an existing requirement to replace the right kind of habitat for wetlands and other resources damaged by Corps projects. The Corps continues to adopt mitigation plans that will not work, in part because they ignore expert recommendation made by federal and state fish and wildlife agencies. This section must be amended so that we use the expertise of resource agencies to protect fish, wildlife, and habitat.

How Can You Help?

Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) spoke up at the March 20 WRDA vote expressing concerns about the provisions in the bill that would undermine critical environmental reviews. We applaud his efforts and hope that other congressional members follow his lead. Please join us today in thanking Senator Cardin on Twitter. His handle is @SenatorCardin and you can also use the hashtag #WRDA.

Here are some sample tweets:

  • Thanks @SenatorCardin for standing up for #cleanwater, #wildlife, and people in #WRDA markup
  • .@SenatorCardin champions the #environment in #WRDA markup. I stand with him!
  • .@SenatorCardin: Keep standing strong & require full environmental reviews for Corps of Engineers projects in #WRDA
  • Thanks @SenatorCardin for protecting endangered species at #WRDA markup.
  • .@SenatorCardin protects Marylanders from harmful Army Corps projects at #WRDA markup.
  • Thanks @SenatorCardin! Saving taxpayer $ and preventing environmentally bad #WRDA projects.

Feel free to make up your own personalized tweets, like, “Thanks to @SenatorCardin for standing up for water and wildlife at #WRDA markup.” Just a few minutes of your time here will go a long way!

What’s next?

Project and study acceleration provisions in this WRDA would create layers of bureaucratic red tape including paperwork, reviews, and fines that will pressure the resource agencies to quell legitimate objections to destructive projects.  Stakeholders across the nation rely on these resource agencies as key partners to prevent damaging and ill-conceived Corps projects from going forward.

As this bill makes its way to the Senate floor, we will be working to make sure that members of Congress realize the flaws and loopholes in this bill and rectify the many problems with it. This bill should protect our valuable water resources, not play Russian roulette with them.