By Christian Flinn
The House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee held a hearing on the USACE Budget and the priorities and needs it addresses. There were two witnesses: Assistant Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy and Chief of Engineers Lieutenant General (LG) Thomas Bostick.
The members present included:
- Mike Simpson, Idaho-02, Chairman
- Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, New Jersey-11
- Ken Calvert, California-42
- Chuck Fleischmann, Tennesse-03, Vice Chair
- Jeff Fortenberry, Nebraska-01
- Kay Granger, Texas-12
- David Valadao, California-21
- Hal Rogers, Kentucky-05, Chairman of the Appropriations Committee
- Marcy Kaptur, Ohio-09, Ranking Member
- Pete Visclosky, Indiana-01
- Mike Honda, California-17
- Lucille Roybal-Allard, California-40
- Mike Quigley, Illinois-05 (not on subcommittee but requested to attend)
The hearing began with opening statements by the Chairman and Ranking Member who addressed the need to reform USACE policies to avoid delays and improve project delivery rates as well as permit approvals. They also addressed environmental and fresh water concerns. The witnesses then began with their opening statements that described some statistics associated with the current FY 2016 Corps Work Plan. After speaking on the water resource priorities of the budget and the work plan, the members began with questions to the witnesses.
The Ranking Member mentioned that she had 2 main concerns to address at the hearing: lack of innovative financing in USACE operations and the disposal of dredged material. With that in mind, her first question addressed the recent fresh water crisis in Ohio and asked about risk conditions in the Great Lakes region. She made a request to LG Bostick to chair a tristate meeting with Canada to discuss mineral runoff from the Western Lake Erie Basin. The LG agreed. From there, Rep. Rogers asked about the complexity of the Corps’ permitting process as well as the application roadblocks that have negatively affected mining in his state. The representative voiced his concerns that the USACE had “surrendered” to the EPA and had lost sight of its role in development, citing loss of jobs in the tourism sector in the Appalachia region. Ms. Darcy responded that this was not quite the case but that interagency cooperation often required environmental consultations that led to fewer permits – particularly where mining and coal were concerned.
Rep. Frelinghuysen then voiced his concerns surrounding Hurricane Sandy projects in New York, stating that several were still uncompleted even though they had been authorized in the Sandy Disaster Supplemental Bill. Ms. Darcy claimed the projects are “near the finish line” and promised to get back to the Congressman.
At this point, the discussion turned to inland waterways concerns and initiatives to control invasive species – in particular the Asian carp in the upper Mississippi River. Ranking Member Kaptur claimed that juvenile Asian carp had been found 40 miles upstream of their usual nesting ground, causing problems for other species in the area. She was very concerned for freshwater fisheries and asked what initiatives the Corps had taken to deal with the problem. The LG responded that non-lethal methods were under investigation and Ms. Darcy added that pesticide and sound method research was underway. Apparently there has been success in the past with adult carp, reducing populations in non-territorial areas by about 68%. The Ranking Member was interested in learning more.
Rep. Roybal-Allard then took over and inquired about progress being made in the surveying of the Los Angeles County drainage area. She was particularly concerned with the backlog of projects (currently around 55 million) and asked how much it would cost to address that backlog as well as how long. The witnesses were unsure on both accounts and promised to return with numbers. The Congresswoman also asked what percentage of the drainage area projects were considered to be in “acceptable” condition and the witnesses again said they would provide the information. Rep. Calvert jumped in at this point, emphasizing the importance of flood control projects as well as storm water collection for California’s water supply.
Rep. Fleischman then took the opportunity to address concerns about the Chickamauga Lock on the Tennessee River. He expressed optimism at the recent appropriation to continue O&M but stressed that the lock was aging and was concerned that it would lose funding. The LG and Ms. Darcy spoke of issues with the lock’s BCR due to lower traffic in recent years but said an LER was being conducted to revise the decline and see what could be done to improve/replace the lock. He also mentioned the Inland Waterways Trust Fund and how, despite having been reformed, it was still underfunded and underutilized. The witnesses said a report was being drafted on cost-shares and the expansion of the Trust Fund from 27 to 40 inland waterways, prompting the Congressman to ask for a copy upon completion.
At this point, Rep. Granger asked the witnesses to detail what they believed were the biggest priorities in terms of infrastructure improvements and they responded that aging infrastructure and general O&M needed to take precedence in the coming years. Rep. Honda asked about projects near San Francisco and San Diego, specifically mentioning the upper Berryessa Creek project under consideration by the RWQCB. The project is crucial for the transportation system in the area but mentioned delays in the process. He then asked about the South San Francisco shoreline study and whether or not there was enough money to complete PED; the witnesses said there was based on the allocation made for that purpose in the 2016 Work Plan. Atmospheric rivers and water supply issues then came forward and the witnesses said that preliminary research into the sector was coming forward but that BCR calculations may delay the projects.
Another important point of discussion was public-private partnerships (P3s), with Reps. Visclosky and Fortenberry asking about Corps procedures to allow them and showing concern about problems accepting private funding in the past. The witnesses spoke about issues with the way OMB goes about calculating “scores” for private companies seeking to invest in Corps projects and stated that the USACE does not have direct involvement in many cases where P3s are under consideration. Other issues have to do with community inequity (where some can afford more than others but shouldn’t have to), monetizing projects effectively, and the lack of guidelines available for establishing P3s.
Rep. Quigley closed things out by addressing flood protection issues in Chicago and stating that it was “inconceivable” that projects such as the Cooke-Thornton reservoir (with a strong BCR and strong community support) was unfunded in 2016. The Congressman said it was concerning for future projects and indicated a Corps deficiency in labeling the project as something other than flood control for phase 2.
For further information, contact Christian Flinn at Christian.Flinn@warwickconsultants.net.