Congress Considering Taking Public Out of Review Process for Water Projects

More than 40 years ago, America began to lay the groundwork for one of the pieces of environmental legislation we rely on today. It was born in part out of an era of big projects by the federal government. Interstates had begun to link the country, cutting a swath through some communities and sensitive ecosystems with little thought to potential environmental consequences.

The resulting National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was designed not to halt new federal construction, but to ensure that their impacts on the environment were known and understood beforehand and that every federal project was in the public interest.

How a Law Helped Prevent Reckless Ideas From Becoming Reality

Flickr photo by Connie Bransilver
Flickr photo by Connie Bransilver
The presence of NEPA has helped encourage smarter, less reckless construction, and has helped preserve the habitats of animals like the Florida panther. By guaranteeing public participation, NEPA has given millions of Americans the opportunity to engage in the federal decision making process.

The law requires agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a careful review of what their projects will mean for nearby waters and wildlife, helping prevent bad ideas from becoming a reality.

That careful review process is part of the reason countless acres of wetland habitat were saved from the poorly thought out and expensive Yazoo Pumps Project. What communities can learn from these reviews is also the reason I can still visit the park where Elvis first performed for a paying audience.

The National Environmental Policy Act is our chance to see the consequences of federal action laid out before us, and gives the public and government a chance to decide whether we want to proceed.

If It Ain’t Broke…

This notion of a scientific review has served us well for 40 years now, which is why the attack it faces today is so worrying. Currently the House and Senate are in conference, trying to decide what the final version of the Water Resources and Development Act is going to look like.

A threatened Red Legged Frog, whose habitat was saved by NEPA review. Flickr photo by Robert Fletcher
A threatened Red Legged Frog, whose habitat was saved by NEPA review. Flickr photo by Robert Fletcher
The Act will authorize a wave of new projects for the Army Corps of Engineers, and buried within the pages of both versions of the bill are fundamental changes that threaten to gut the concept of environmental review.

In the name of “streamlining” the environmental review process, the Water Resources Development Act would require agencies to speed through their critical project reviews. This hard cap on the time spent in review applies to all projects, regardless of size.

As if that weren’t enough, other provisions would limit expert input, transparency and public participation during the development and study of water projects. It would damage our understanding of a project’s impact, and leave local communities with less of a say in what the Corps might be building in their backyards.

The hope is that a faster environmental review process would speed up the construction of Army Corps projects. Leaving aside the danger of hurrying along an already terrible project, the National Environmental Policy Act is hardly a roadblock for these projects.

Over 1,100 authorized projects—a backlog of $60-$80 billion—are on the table, just waiting for the funding they need to break ground. WRDA does nothing to address the root problem of this backlog and simply piles more onto the Army Corps.

It’s Time to Act

Fortunately, it’s not too late to change course. As the conferees continue to conduct their own thorough review of the Water Resources Development Act, we have a chance to make our voices heard. Reach out to these Members of Congress and let them know that environmental reviews should be left alone!

Contact these members of Congress and tell them: don’t cut the public out of the review process!

Conference Committee Members

House of Representatives
Bill Shuster (R-PA)
John Duncan (R-TN)
Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ)
Sam Graves (R-MO)
Shelley Capito (R-WV)
Candice Miller (R-MI)
Duncan Hunter (R-CA)
Larry Bucshon (R-IN)
Bob Gibbs (R-IN)
Richard Hanna (R-NY)
Daniel Webster (R-FL)
Tom Rice (R-SC)
Markwayne Mullin (R-OK)
Rodney Davis (R-IL)
Doc Hastings (R-WA)
Rob Bishop (R-UT)
Nick Rahall (D-WV)
Peter DeFazio (D-OR)
Corinne Brown (D-FL)
Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX)
Tim Bishop (D-NY)
Donna Edwards (D-MD)
John Garamendi (D-CA)
Janice Hahn (D-CA)
Rick Nolan (D-MN)
Lois Frankel (D-FL)
Cheri Bustos (D-IL)
Grace Napolitano (D-CA)
Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
Ben Cardin (D-MD)
Max Baucus (D-MT)
Tom Carper (D-DE)
Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
David Vitter (R-LA)
James Inhofe (R-OK)
John Barasso (R-WY)

Learn more about the Water Resources Development Act and follow us @NWFwater