WRDA’99 threatens environmental integrity of US water infrastructure projects

Legislation which poses a threat to the accountability and environmental integrity of water infrastructure projects is currently making its way through Congress, says Friends of the Earth USA (FoE).

Friends of the Earth claim the Water Resources Development Act 1999 (WDRA’99) could:

  • diminish accountability by introducing political considerations to the planning process;
  • decrease the share of costs paid by local sponsors of harbour dredging, causing increased dredging of sensitive areas and more dumping of contaminated dredge materials; and
  • add to the Army Corps of Engineers’ construction backlog without providing new funding or guidance on how to prioritize projects.

The Water Resources Development Act authorizes the US Army Corps of Engineers’ civil works programmes. These include the construction and maintenance of locks and navigable waterways, protection of coastal areas and beaches, harbour dredging, and flood control construction projects.

FoE say that many of the reforms instituted by Ronald Reagan’s 1986 WRDA will be rolled back under WRDA’99.

In April, the House of Representatives and the Senate passed versions of WRDA ’99 by overwhelming majorities.

Delegations from the House and Senate are currently meeting in a “conference committee” to negotiate a compromise between the House and Senate versions of WRDA ’99. The conference is expected to produce a final bill that will be sent for President Clinton’s approval. Thus far, the Clinton Administration has not indicated whether it will sign the bill.

Friends of the Earth claim that, in the past, the Army Corps of Engineers’ civil works programme has provided Members of Congress with abundant funds for the construction of popularity boosting dams or dredging projects. As a result, reforms were made make the funding of water projects more accountable and to make sure the projects undertaken were necessary.

Between 1970 and 1986, no new authorizations were enacted as Congress and successive Presidents were unable to agree on water resources legislation. Finally, in 1986, President Reagan passed a water resources bill with many reforms supported by both environmentalists and fiscal conservatives.

FoE say that many of the reforms instituted by the 1986 WRDA will be rolled back in the proposed water resources legislation. Ironically, it is a Republican-led Congress that is rolling back the accountability measures and taxpayer protections established under Reagan.

Contingent authorizations

According to FoE, the House of Representative and Senate versions of WRDA ’99 will short-circuit standard planning procedures and put political pressure on the Army Corps to accelerate planning, to the detriment of environmental protection considerations.

This, FoE says, is because WRDA ’99 authorizes new water projects using contingent authorizations. A number of new construction projects could therefore go ahead before the Army Corps of Engineers has analysed their feasibility. Under the reforms instituted during the Reagan Administration, the Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers is required to file a report endorsing a project after reviewing its environmental and fiscal feasibility.

The House and Senate could use “contingent authorizations” to authorize over 13 projects exceeding $700 million in the House and over 20 projects at an overall cost exceeding $1.1 billion in the Senate.

Harbour dredging cost-share reductions

The share of costs paid by local beneficiaries of deep-draft harbour dredging projects will decrease under the House version of WRDA ’99, say FoE.

Under the Army Corps of Engineers’ civil works programs, local sponsors of harbour dredging construction projects must pay a percentage of the cost. The rationale for a local cost-share is two-fold:

  • First, it saves federal taxpayers money. Residents and business of a region served by a dredging project should bear more of the burden because they will be the main beneficiaries.
  • Second, paying a share of the cost makes local sponsors more cautious and reasonable.

Under current law, local sponsors pay from 60 percent to 20 percent of the costs of dredging. The deeper the dredge project, the more local sponsors have to pay. “Deep-draft” is below 45 feet – deep enough for the largest container ships.

Under current law federal government can pay up to 40 percent of the cost of deep-draft dredging. The House version of WRDA increases the federal cost-share to 65 percent, meaning that federal taxpayers will pay more for deep-draft dredging. Thus WRDA ’99 encourages local beneficiaries to undertake new deep-draft dredging projects, say FoE.

FoE says nearly every US port is now considering new deep-draft projects out of fear they will lose business to competing US ports.

In addition to changes in the cost-share for construction, the House of Representatives version of WRDA ’99 increases the share of deep-draft port operation and maintenance (O&M) costs paid by the US Government from 50 percent to 100 percent.

FoE says increased federal cost-shares will mean more dredging. This will lead to greater volumes of dredge materials, including contaminated sediments. FoE points out that dredged materials are difficult and expensive to dispose of.

Construction backlog

WRDA ’99 will add billions of dollars to the Army Corps of Engineers current $27 billion construction backlog, claim FoE.

The Army Corps of Engineers’ annual construction budget has hovered around $1 billion for years. Many more projects are on the books, but have not been started – and do not count as part of the backlog, including more than 100 new projects authorized in the 1996 WRDA.

FoE accuse Congress of “a lack of discipline” by adding dozens of new projects while doing little to eliminate the existing backlog, nor establish priorities for the Army Corps of Engineers.

FoE claim this creates unrealistic expectations in US communities hoping for federal assistance that will never come. These unrealistic expectations, say FoE, prevent communities from looking at problems realistically and taking action to solve them.

Outdated Projects

FoE says WRDA ’99 will reauthorize several projects that had been cancelled under WDRA ’86.

The Army Corps of Engineers faces a growing backlog of construction projects. To begin cutting down the backlog, the 1986 WRDA set a policy to automatically ‘deauthorize’ any project that had not received any funding for 10 years. Projects authorized since the 1986 WRDA are automatically deauthorized after five years if not funded.

This policy insured that projects had updated feasibility studies and helped to reduce the backlog of construction projects.

The House and Senate versions of WRDA ’99 reauthorize several projects that had been deauthorized under this policy, including several that are out-of-date. For example, a reauthorized shore protection project at Lido Key Beach, Florida has a US Army Corps of Engineers Chief report dated January 1969. FoE say that a closer look at these projects would probably reveal costs and environmental effects that were not evident at the time of the original report.

Beneficial WDRA’99 reforms

However, FoE also welcomes a number of WDRA’99’s reforms. These include:

  • Challenge 21. Both the House and Senate versions of WRDA ’99 include authorization for the Flood Hazard Mitigation and Riverine Ecosystem Restoration Initiative (also known as Challenge 21), to reassess the nation’s flood control management policies. This program will seek innovative, non-structural alternatives to flood protection. Projects could include relocation of threatened homes or businesses, conservation or restoration of wetlands and natural floodwater storage areas, and increased planning for potential floods.
  • American River. A coalition of environmentalists and taxpayers teamed up with Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) and Rep. Thomas Petri (R-WI) to remove water supply projects that would have laid the ground work for Auburn Dam. The projects could have seriously drained the American River, FoE says. Although defeated in the House, there remains a possibility that some version of the project could be reinserted in the final WRDA ’99 legislation, FoE warns.

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