October 2016


Senate Passes Water Resources Bill

By Senate Passes Water Resources Bill
      NACO Associate Legislative Director - Environment, Energy & Land Use

WRDA authorizes the Army Corps to provide technical assistance to counties developing their own feasibility studies.


A bill to reauthorize water resources projects passed the Senate Sept. 15 by a 95-3 margin.

The Water Resources Development Act of 2016, or WRDA, reauthorizes Army Corps of Engineers' (Corps) water resources projects for navigable waters, harbors and ports, inland waterways, flood control, water supply, emergency management, hydropower and recreational-based Corps projects.

The Senate’s WRDA bill, S. 2848, would clear a backlog of Corps’ project authorizations and move forward with 30 projects. In addition, the measure also includes money to address the recent lead crisis in Flint, Mich. and to assist communities across the country dealing with aging and failing water infrastructure and lead contamination.

Provisions of Interest to Counties

Army Corps Projects: The Senate bill would authorize just over $10 billion for 30 new Corps projects, including Los Angeles River restoration efforts, harbor work in Charleston, S.C. and flood protection projects in New Jersey and California, while creating programmatic changes to the Corps’ project delivery process.

Specifically, the bill authorizes the Corps to provide technical assistance to a non-federal project sponsor (such as a county) that is developing its own feasibility study; expands the existing authority of the Corps to accept funds from states and local governments to carry out water resources projects to apply to all projects (not just flood control projects); allows the Corps to establish partnerships with non-federal interests to address the backlog of maintenance at Corps projects; and amends the Corps’ existing authority to accept funds from non-federal interests by removing requirements pertaining to the appropriation of funds.

Funding for Harbor Maintenance Programs: The Senate’s version of WRDA would ensure that the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) remains solvent so that the nation’s ports, harbors and waterways receive the resources to ensure the unhindered passage of commerce.

The HMTF collects a user fee levied on the value of imported goods. The collected fees are intended to support the operations and maintenance funding needed for the deep draft and coastal waterways. Historically, HMTF collections have far exceeded funds appropriated for harbor maintenance, resulting in a large and growing “surplus” of more than $9 billion.

Water Infrastructure Funding and Policy Changes: Along with $220 million for the Flint, Mich. lead contamination emergency, the Senate bill would authorize a $300 million grant program for reducing lead in drinking water. Additionally, the bill includes $1.4 billion to help small and disadvantaged communities meet federal drinking water standards.

Furthermore, S. 2848 would authorize $1.8 billion for grants to address sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows and storm water discharges. The bill would also provide $100 million in assistance to states with emergency drinking water situations through the drinking water state revolving loan fund program.

Innovative Water Financing: The Senate’s bill would amend the public-private partnership program established by the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) in 2014 to remove the requirement that it be authorized by an appropriations bill. The bill would also clarify the scope of projects eligible for assistance under the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation (WIFIA) program and authorize the financing of fees if the applicant is a small community.

In addition to existing innovative financing options, the bill would establish a trust fund for water infrastructure that would be used for capitalization grants for the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Funds. The EPA would also be authorized to use WIFIA authority to make secured loans for emergency situations related to drinking water contaminants.

National Drought Resilience Guidelines: The Senate’s bill would direct the EPA, in conjunction with the secretary of interior, the secretary of agriculture, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other federal agency heads, along with state and local governments, to develop non-regulatory national drought resilience guidelines relating to drought preparedness planning and investments for communities, water utilities and other water users and providers.

The Senate bill would also establish and authorize a number of other programs that may provide funding and guidance for counties to address a wide variety of water resources interests including:

Gold King Mine Spill: Would require EPA to pay for the response costs of the Gold King Mine spill in Colorado within 90 days of passage.

Lead Testing in School and Child Care Drinking Water: The Senate’s bill would authorize a total of $100 million for grants to carry out a voluntary school and child care lead testing program
Levee Vegetation: Would clarify the levee vegetation management policy adopted under WRRDA by prohibiting the Corps from requiring or carrying out vegetation removal (unless there is an unacceptable safety risk) until they issue new guidelines. S. 2848 would require the Corps to explain why they have failed to develop the new guidelines required in WRRDA

Local Government Water Management Plans: Would allow local governments to participate in feasibility studies in their watershed if the other sponsors of the study agree and if the local government provides its share of the costs
Rehabilitation of Existing Levees: The Senate’s bill would authorize $125 million for a pilot program for the Corps to immediately address subsiding coastal levees

Rehabilitation of High Hazard Potential Dams: The Senate’s bill would authorize $435 million over 10 years for a Federal Emergency Management Agency program to rehabilitate high hazard potential dams
Wetlands Mitigation: The bill would require the Corps to issue guidance regarding credits available from mitigation banks and in-lieu fee programs, and allow mitigation banks and in-lieu fee programs to be considered reasonable alternatives

While the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has crafted its own version of WRDA 2016 (H.R. 5303), the House has yet to consider it. The House’s version does not include funding for drinking water and wastewater projects. If the House is able to pass its narrower version of WRDA before Congress adjourns for the upcoming elections, it would give the chambers time to work out policy differences between the House-Senate bills during the lame-duck session.

NACo will continue to monitor the progress of WRDA legislation and work with Congress to pass legislation that preserves the local-state-federal partnership in protecting and improving our communities’ water resources.

Reprinted from County News, October 11 issue.

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