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House Panel Approves Major Water Infrastructure Measure (1)

July 15, 2020, 7:44 PM; Updated: July 15, 2020, 8:38 PM

A multibillion-dollar measure that would help build, repair, and maintain a wide variety of water infrastructure projects sailed through the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Wednesday.

Approved unanimously by voice vote, the Water Resources Development Act of 2020 (H.R. 7575) would authorize the Army Corps of Engineers every two years to carry out specific projects and feasibility studies.

The bill directs funds for 38 new projects and 35 studies that include repairing locks and dams on inland waterways to boost coastal shorelines against flooding, and protecting the nation’s waters against harmful algal blooms and other invasive species, such as the Asian carp.

It would direct the Army Corps to report on PFAS contamination of federally managed water projects. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, dubbed forever chemicals, are used in firefighting foam and numerous consumer products and have been linked to health concerns.

The bill, which has bipartisan support, now heads to the full House, where it’s expected to face little to no opposition. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has approved its own water resources bill that awaits a Senate vote.

In the Senate, the environment committee members worked in a bipartisan fashion to introduce and unanimously advance two bills (S. 3590, S. 3591) to update the nation’s water infrastructure and drinking water systems.

“The Committee looks forward to reviewing the bill when it is reported by T&I,” Mike Danylak, Republican spokesman for the Senate environment committee, wrote Wednesday.

Trust Fund ‘Unlocks’

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Water and Environment Subcommittee Chairwoman Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) joined Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) in introducing the legislation two days before the vote.

DeFazio said H.R. 7575 “unlocks” $10 billion sitting in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to meet the ongoing repair needs of the nation’s largest ports and the Great Lakes harbors, as well as other ports.

“We want them to be used for the intended purpose,” DeFazio said Wednesday.

The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund has been collected from shippers to fund much-needed repairs at the nation’s largest ports, including the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which Napolitano said move 40 percent of the nation’s exports and imports.

The overwhelming majority of U.S. imports and exports depend on ports, and large amounts of grain, steel, coal, petroleum, and other commodities move by inland waterways, giving the Army Corps projects significance to virtually every state.

The bill also would increase the share of inland water infrastructure project costs from 50% from the general Treasury fund to 65%, while the remaining 35% would be funded by the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which is based on fees levied on barge operators.

Democrats and Republicans supported the increase, saying the cost-share arrangement with the Inland Waterways Trust Fund has impeded projects in the past.

The Waterways Council Inc., which represents the nation’s barge operators, said it supports the federal share increase, but has concerns about the provision’s seven-year sunset clause.

“We prefer the clean, non-sunset Senate Environment and Public Works-approved bill with the 65%-35% adjustment,” Deb Calhoun, the council’s spokeswoman, said Wednesday.

Graves, the full committee’s ranking member, said he was pleased the bill has a “bold plan” to reduce flooding along the Missouri River, which he said has devastated homes, farms, and businesses in his district in Missouri.

Puerto Rico Assistance

Puerto Rico’s at-large resident commissioner, Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon (R), said she was particularly pleased that the bill directs the Army Corps to increase funds for an ongoing project and initiate three flood mitigation projects on the island that suffered catastrophic damage from Hurricane Maria in 2017.

The House bill would increase authorized funding for the Caño Martín Peña ecosystem restoration project, from $150 million to $232.4 million, and advance flood control projects in Rio Culebrina, Rio Grande de Manatí and the Rio Guayanilla in Puerto Rico.

The El Caño Martin Peña (CMP) is a 3.75-mile-long tidal channel located within the San Juan Bay National Estuary in Puerto Rico that has been clogged with sediment, debris, and organic waste that causes water to stagnate, posing risk of wastewater flooding, due to lack of storm drains, in eight communities including San Juan. The Army Corps has been working on this project since 2007.

The water bill would direct the corps to provide technical assistance to communities to prepare for changing climatic conditions and extreme weather events, and to respond to disruption due to flood hazards. Assistance would be prioritized for communities with low-income people, including minorities.

American Rivers, a nonprofit conservation group, was pleased with the bill because it emphasizes the use of natural solutions, such as restoring marshes and creeks, to reduce flooding risk. And the bill directs the corps to study the Upper Mississippi and Lower Missouri, which the group considers the most endangered rivers in the nation.

H.R. 7575 would authorize a watershed study of the Upper Mississippi River Basin to see how coordinated water management in the region can reduce flood risk, and a comprehensive study of the Lower Missouri River Basin to find out which nature-based solutions would work best for communities living along the banks.

“When this Committee operates in a bipartisan manner, our work has the most positive impact for our nation’s infrastructure,” Graves said.

(Updated with comment by American Rivers.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com; Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com

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