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Water resources bill advanced by House committee

May 18, 2022   CQ NEWS

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May 18, 2022 – 5:40 p.m. By Benjamin J. Hulac, CQ

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee advanced a water policy bill that would authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to complete dozens of studies and projects on a range of issues, including flood control, navigation, dredging and communication with tribal nations.


Following about five hours of debate over the legislation (HR 7776) and amendments, the committee agreed by voice vote to send the bill to the full House.


“We expect to go to the floor in June,” Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., said. “I think we put ourselves in a very, very strong position.” 


The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved its version of the bill (S 4136), known as the Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, which has gotten bipartisan support in every Congress since 2014, on May 4.

DeFazio and top committee Republicans shepherded the bill through the amendment process Wednesday, at times reaching verbal agreements with committee members to work on particular issues, such as tribal notification or dredging, to prevent the bill from changing significantly.


They wanted the bill to be able to get through the Senate, they said.


The bill would greenlight 72 new feasibility studies on corps projects, authorize eight studies on modifying existing corps projects and approve the construction of 16 pending projects at the agency that have been proposed.


“From policies addressing flood risk, to initiatives to improve our ports and stabilize our inland waterways, this meaningful legislation is critical to address the unique needs of our communities in North Carolina and to strengthen the entire U.S. economy,” said Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee that oversees water issues. 


Reps. Brian Mast, R-Fla., who represents a district northeast of the Everglades, and Garret Graves, R-La., whose home state is synonymous with the loss of coastal ecosystems, offered a series of individual amendments, at times drawing support from DeFazio to work together to address water issues.


The committee adopted a Mast amendment that would require federal officials to place letters in the files of corps employees, either in the military or not, who are exposed to “microcystin,”  a potent liver toxin better known as an algal bloom, during their work.

Members rejected, 16-39, an amendment Mast proposed that would ban the corps from using glyphosate, a pesticide with potential links to cancer and kidney and liver damage, and a separate amendment that would require the corps to notify local communities when water they release from Lake Okeechobee contains toxic algal blooms.


“The corps owes a warning if they’re sending toxic water,” Mast said.


Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., offered one amendment that would strike a section of the bill requiring a federal study on the opportunities of installing solar panels on corps sites. Members rejected it, 20-38.


Another Perry amendment, which the panel rejected in a 24-34 vote, would bar commissions for the Susquehanna, Delaware and Potomac river basins from adopting new rules on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.


The afternoon may have laid the foundation for a deal on tribal burial sites. 


Doug LaMalfa, a California Republican, recounted corps projects between 2014 and 2019, when agency staffers trampled through native burial grounds and sacred sites of the Auburn Indian Community, a federally recognized tribe in northern California.


“They turned up human skulls, ceremonial items, beads, other things that were part of the culture of the tribe at the time,” LaMalfa said. Ultimately, the corps found 12 separate burial sites, he said. LaMalfa offered an amendment that would create a process for finding, tracking and monitoring human remains from tribal sites.


LaMalfa agreed to withdraw his amendment after DeFazio pledged his help, adding that opposition to the concept was within the Republican camp of the committee.


“I think it needs work with [the Republican] side of the aisle,” DeFazio said to LaMalfa. “That’s what I’m hearing.”