By Christian Flinn
On February 10, 2016 the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) held a regulatory hearing entitled “The Importance of Enacting a New Water Resources Development Act.” The purpose of the hearing, similar to that of a previous House-run roundtable policy discussion, was to receive input from experts and interested parties on the provisions and layout of the Water Resource Development Act (WRDA) of 2016. Also similar to the policy discussion, the hearing allowed Senators a chance to voice their concerns while also asking the witnesses present how exactly they would implement some of the changes and requests being proposed as well as how the committee could help them do it.
Committee members present included: Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), John Boozman (R-AR), Barbara Boxer (Ranking Member, D-CA), Shelley Capito (R-WV), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Thomas Carper (D-DE), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), James Inhofe (Chairman, R-OK), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Roger Wicker (R-MS).
Five witnesses were on the panel and they presented their positions on WRDA 2016 as follows:
- Bob Portiss, Port Director of the Tulsa Port of Catoosa. Mr. Portis commented on the lack of enforcement surrounding Section 1024 of WRRDA 2014, which allows repairs to damaged infrastructure. As he put it, the language has been interpreted by the USACE as only allowing repairs to infrastructure damaged by natural disasters. He stressed the need for increased maintenance as a result and urged the committee to clarify when infrastructure is eligible for repairs and to ensure dedicated funding for Sec. 1024 in WRDA 2016.
- John Swearingen, Senior Vice President of the Marathon Petroleum Corporation. Mr. Swearingen spoke of the need to invest in the country’s energy infrastructure and the previous “fix as failed” approach taken by the corps when dealing with routine maintenance. He also spoke of the importance of maintaining inland waterways, as blockages can cost millions of dollars in delays and lost merchandise.
- Rob Roberson, Director of Corporate Logistics for the Nucor Corporation. Mr. Roberson also addressed the need for greater investment in inland waterways and ports and the noticeable lack of initiative where maintenance is concerned. His emphasis was on ensuring a proper network of inland ports for shipping purposes, as losses in efficiency using other methods of moving merchandise can cost the country’s competitiveness.
- Norma-Jean Mattei, President Elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Dr. Mattei spoke at length about the 2013 report card her organization released for the country’s infrastructure and noted that the overall grade was a D+. She emphasized that not investing in infrastructure will inevitably lead to failures that will only cement the current system of addressing disasters as they occur rather than attempting to prevent them in the first place. In preparing the 2017 report card, she emphasized the importance of assessing the country’s levees and dams and the committee’s responsibility to ensure that aging and damaged projects receive the necessary attention.
- Kyle Makarios, Director of Government Affairs for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. Mr. Makarios pointed out the importance of WRDA 2016 to the millions of construction workers who build the projects in question. He further stated that it is because of their work that the necessary upgrades to navigation infrastructure along inland waterways – for example, the locks along the Mississippi River – can be made.
After the introductory statements, Chairman Inhofe began the discussion by asking Mr. Portiss about the provisions in Sec. 1024. Specifically, he was curious about Mr. Portiss’ thoughts on why funding for repairs to neglected or aging equipment was so difficult to find if the provision also allowed private money to be used for that purpose. Mr. Portiss addressed the problematic language of WRRDA 2014 again and stated that the USACE determination of natural disasters being the only justification for repair was the block.
Furthering the discussion, Ranking Member Boxer interjected, saying “we will step up as a committee.” She addressed Dr. Mattei’s report card grades and said the nation’s ports deserved better than a C grade and that, while funding was itself important to ensure infrastructure maintenance, locking in growth provisions into WRDA bills in general was the only way to move forward with water resource bills. She also asked Mr. Makarios about the quality of the construction jobs in question and he said that their importance lies in the volume of work that still needs to be done, but that often it does not get funded quickly enough.
From there, Sen. Capito spoke of previous complaints of inefficiency in the corps’ operating system and asked if any of the panelists had experienced firsthand the “3-3-3 rule” (where studies must be completed within three years, at a cost of $3 million or less, and involve three layers of review – district, division and headquarters). None had, which the Senator took as an indication that more time was needed to judge the widespread effectiveness of the program. She also spoke of how best to prioritize between projects i.e. dams, levees, coastal protection, etc. and Dr. Mattei responded that doing so would be risky, and that instead prioritizing within each category and acting simultaneously to address those projects was the best way to begin.
Emphasizing the need to do so, Sen. Whitehouse showed to the committee what appeared to be a rusty pipeline that had been dug up in Rhode Island and had, until recently, been used to transport drinking water to residents. The pipe was from the 1920s. Making a point about Congress’ lack of ability under certain circumstances to control priorities, then, he also decried the “self-mutilation” that Congress had committed by banning earmarks – and received the agreement of several other members.
Finally, Sen. Cory Booker stated that because of the large return on many infrastructure investments (as high as 16:1 in some projects), it was the “fiscally conservative” course of action. Adding to this, he stated investment in infrastructure was the humane alternative and took the opportunity, along with Sen. Fischer, to briefly speak of the bipartisan Safe Pipes Act which would aim to prevent future catastrophes like the lead seepages in Flint, Michigan. Overall, the concern on the Senators’ end was prioritizing what needs to be done and devising a strategy within the committee’s reach for addressing those priorities. The tone of the hearing, while optimistic in terms of taking action and working with the corps to invest in maintenance of the country’s infrastructure, ended on a note of action items that, if addressed, could produce positive results but, if ignored, would do little to nothing to change the current situation.
For more information, contact Christian Flinn at email@example.com.