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Senate, House panels aim to advance 2024 water resources bill

February 29, 2024   Engineering News-Record

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Senate and House lawmakers are moving ahead with plans for new legislation that would authorize billions of dollars for Army Corps of Engineers flood protection, harbor dredging, river locks and dams, ecosystem restoration and other projects.


Leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee outlined their goals for the envisioned 2024 Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, at a Feb. 28 hearing. Past WRDAs have been bipartisan and there is no indication 2024 will be different.


Although the legislators do not face a mandatory deadline for enacting a new WRDA bill, they made clear that they want to see a measure approved this year. If they hit that target, it would continue a streak of enacting a WRDA every other year since 2014.


In the House, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Sam Graves (R-Mo.) "intends to pass a bipartisan WRDA this year," a committee spokesman told ENR in a Feb. 29 email. He added, "It's in development as we speak." [House committee backgrounder here.]


The centerpiece of WRDA bills has long been its federal funding authorizations for individual projects. The 2022 measure authorized federal funds for 25 new projects, totaling an estimated $30 billion. Most projects also receive nonfederal funds.


WRDAs also have included provisions to change Corps civil works policies.


At the Senate hearing, Committee Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.) and the panel’s top Republican, Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), made clear that the new bill will be focused on projects rather than on adding more policy provisions.


Carper said that a project-centered bill would allow the Corps “to dedicate more time and additional resources to fully implement the changes we’ve already made in past pieces of legislation.”


A theme of the hearing was lawmakers' dissatisfaction with the Corps' pace in carrying out policy provisions from 2022 WRDA and earlier ones.


Carper said, “The implementation of these laws is taking longer than we expected–in some cases, a good deal longer.”


Capito said the Corps had not yet met a requirement added in the 2022 WRDA to produce a system to track and provide annual reports on the time it has taken to complete environmental reviews of Corps water resources projects under the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act.


What's more, Capito said the Corps had told the committee that it would need an additional $3 million to set up the reporting system.


Carper did say that the Corps has been making “some meaningful progress," citing revised Principles, Requirements and Guidelines for evaluating planned water resources projects. Carper said the proposal, published Feb. 15, "goes a long way toward building community resilience to climate change."


Michael Connor, assistant Army secretary for civil works, told the panel he appreciated the committee members' idea of producing a “policy-lite” 2024 WRDA “because we do need to catch up and implement" policy provisions from past WRDAs.


Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, the Army's Chief of Engineers and the Corps' Commanding General, told the committee that one factor behind project delays is fitting all of the Corps' worthy projects within the overall budgetary "top line."


Connor also noted the uncertainty caused by congressional churning over appropriations bills. He said, "In this era, we don't even know right now what [fiscal] 2024 looks like ... We have no sense of whether there will be an appropriations bill or whether there will be a continuing resolution." Connor added, "This impacts our ability to move forward."


The envisioned 2024 WRDA is shaping up as popular. A request from Carper and Capito to their Senate colleagues for items they would like to see included in the coming water resources bill drew more than 1,200 replies. It was unclear how many of those replies sought funds for new projects.


For a new project to be included in WRDA, it first must receive a favorable report from the Army Chief of Engineers.


As of Feb. 29, Spellmon had signed "Chief's reports" for six new projects, according to the Corps. More projects are sure to be approved and join the WRDA 2024 roster in coming months.