Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) Update

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Congress has managed to hold to a two-year reauthorization schedule for the last three Water Resource Development Acts (2014, 2016, and 2018) and it looks like they are on track to increase that streak to four this year. This past Wednesday, the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee voted unanimously to move H.R. 7575 The Water Resources Development Act of 2020 (WRDA 2020) out of committee. The bill is now headed to the House floor.

WRDA bills provide authority for the U.S Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to conduct projects and studies. They have historically included (or been packaged with bills including) other water-related provisions such as drinking water programs and water infrastructure funding mechanisms.

This year’s House WRDA bill would provide around $8.6 billion in funding for 34 USACE projects. This is notably more than five times as many projects as were approved by WRDA 2018. The bill would authorize 35 new USACE studies and calls for 41 ongoing studies to be expedited. In addition to project authorizations, the bill includes three other significant provisions shared more in detail below:

Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund “Unlocked”

The House bill would “unlock” $10 billion in funds held in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF), allowing that money to be spent on dredging and port projects. This has been a longtime aim of Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR). HMTF funds were partially unlocked earlier this year in the CARES Act, but annual expenditures from the fund were capped at the amount of the previous year’s HMTF revenue. WRDA 2020 would expand on this by allowing access to additional funds from the existing HMTF balance.

Inland Waterways Trust Fund Cost Share Reduced

WRDA 2020 would reduce the share drawn from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to 35% from the current 50% for lock and dam projects on rivers. This would increase the Treasury’s general fund cost share for these projects from 50% to 65%. Theoretically this reduction of trust fund spending will allow trust fund dollars to fund more projects. This change notably is not permanent and would apply only to projects beginning before the end of 2027.

An Increasing Focus on Resilience and Environmental Justice

This year’s WRDA is crafted with an increasing focus on disaster resilience and consideration of communities impacted by flooding and other water-related dangers. Of the 34 projects approved for USACE work, seven are for flood management and two others are for flood reduction with ecosystem restoration components. The bill also reaffirms a commitment to using natural and nature-based solutions and authorizing projects and studies for communities facing repetitive flooding events. The bill also includes PFAS provisions, increases minority community and tribal input on projects, and aims to address affordability issues for disadvantaged communities.

What’s Happening in the Senate?

The Senate’s 2020 WRDA proposal has been voted through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee but has not yet received a floor vote. The Senate’s proposal comprises two bills: one for USACE entitled America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) of 2020, and another for drinking-water authorizations and provisions called the Drinking Water Act of 2020. The Senate proposal, like the House bill, was developed using a bipartisan approach and has broad support on both sides of the aisle.

What’s Next for WRDA?

With bipartisan proposals already out of committee in the House and Senate and plenty of pressure to stick to the two-year authorization cycle, the outlook looks bright for WRDA 2020. As broader infrastructure packages like the Moving Forward Act remain mired in partisan debate, WRDA presents an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to find common ground on infrastructure investment. Expect to hear more on WRDA once Congress returns from their August recess.

For further reading, check out the House bill text, fact sheet, and section-by-section summary; the Senate AWIA text, fact sheet, and section-by-section summary; and the Senate Drinking Water Act text and section-by-section summary.

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