By Alex Laplaza
On March 16, 2016 the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing titled, “Hearing on the 2016 Water Resources Development Act – Policies and Projects.” This was the EPW’s second hearing on WRDA 2016. Assistant Secretary of the Army, Jo-Ellen Darcy, and Chief of Engineers, Lieutenant General Thomas Bostick, testified and responded to questions on the importance of rebuilding and maintain America’s waterways and flood control infrastructure.
- Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK)
- Ranking Member Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
- David Vitter (R-LA)
- Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
- Deb Fischer (R-NE)
- Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
- Mike Rounds (R-SD)
- Tom Carper (D-DE)
- John Boozman (R-AR)
- Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)
James Inhofe (R-OK) – Opening Statement:
Senator Inhofe opened the hearing by noting that Congress has returned to passing WRDA on a bi-annual basis as was originally intended. According to Inhofe, “This allows Congress to help meet the demands for navigation, flood control, and ecosystem restoration projects around the country.” Since Congress passed the last WRDA bill in June 2014, the Chief of Engineers has completed 22 reports recommending new water resources projects or changes to existing projects and has submitted these reports to Congress. Congress is now considering these projects for the 2016 WRDA. According to Inhofe, “all of them will provide significant benefits.”
However, Senator Inhofe lamented that despite private sector wiliness to invest in public-private partnerships, “it seems like the Corps looks for ways to say ‘no.’ [He wants] to work with [the Corps] to encourage partnerships where the Corps is looking for ways to say ‘yes.’” Despite this, Senator Inhofe is confident that the Committee on Environment and Public Works will move a bill through committee this spring and pass a WRDA in 2016.
Barbara Boxer (D-CA):
Senator Boxer reiterated Senator Inhofe’s emphasis on the importance of passing a WRDA in 2016 particularly in the face of long-term extreme weather concerns. Boxer argued, “It’s always easiest to do nothing, but this committee understands its responsibility.” To accentuate the committee’s responsibility, Boxer’s staff held up photos of corroded drinking water pipes in Flint, Michigan. Senator Boxer also believes that the committee and its commitment to passing a WRDA in 2016 can restore some faith in Congressional bipartisanship.
Assistant Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy:
Assistant Secretary Darcy’s opening statement echoed Senators Inhofe and Boxer’s conviction that passing a WRDA in 2016 will “strengthen the Nation’s economy and resilience, provide public safety, and restore the environment.” Darcy underscored that the Corps is executing its program in a complex, resource-constrained environment, requiring greater collaboration with customers, partners, stakeholders, and the public.
Chief of Engineers Lt. General Thomas Bostick:
At what could potentially be his last Congressional hearing prior to retirement, Lt. General Bostick followed by recommended continued work on innovative finance models and partnerships with the private sector to address some of the USACE’s needs.
Questions and Answers
Barbara Boxer (D-CA):
Q: In past, WRDA bills were passed every couple of years, but since 2000 bill have only passed every seven years. Has the time lag between WRDA bills affected the efficient and timely completion of projects?
A (Darcy): Not having a bill every two years has adversely affected our ability to plan – our ability as well as the ability of our local sponsors. If a local sponsor knows that every two years, there’s going to be an authorization bill, I think they can more easily plan for their investment as well as the federal government investments. A regular cycle of every two years is in the best interest not only in our implementation, but also for the local sponsors who are responsible for funding these projects.
Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI):
Q: When we last did WRDA in 2014, everybody worked very hard on putting transparency requirements in for the Army Corps. The obvious reason for that is that the Army Corps requires local participants have money ready to pay their share and having to hang on to that money without knowing when it will be called on creates a lot of difficulties for local governments and local sponsors. That was in 2014 and the guidance for the transparency section came out just this February. In the years that went by between when we passed the reauthorization with the transparency provision and the weeks ago that you got out the transparency guidance, have you taken other intermediary steps to try to improve the lack of transparency that concerned this committee?
A (Darcy): We have been in our collaboration with our local sponsors. Part of the provision in the last WRDA bill was to have us be in consultation with the other federal agencies earlier in the process so that we could collaborate with them during the process so that the local sponsor would know what was going on and any possible impediments through the planning process. We’ve been doing that within our planning process and looking forward to how to develop these for a more transparent and inclusive process so that we don't come to the end of study and find out about an issue.
Q: In the Army Corps’ FY17 Budget Request, there is a $1.214bn Flood and Coastal Storm Damage Reduction Budget Line. If you drill into that budget line, it appears that the amount requested for coastal projects is $10m and the amount requested for inland projects is $1.204 bn, which would be more than 100 times as much. As a coastal state, and as one that is more likely to see more damage from sea level rise and warming seas, I’m concerned that there should be this discrepancy coastal projects and inland projects. I would like to get a full explanation of that discrepancy. Funding appears to go upland and leave coastal areas underfunded.
A (Darcy): Once we look at it, part of it may be just terminology rather than money on the coast and money inland comparison. But we will provide you with [an explanation].
Tom Carper (D-DE):
Q: We had a bad storm about a month or two ago. We had huge winds sustaining as high as 60 to 70 knots. It was a nor’easter. It did do a whole lot of damage. The good news is that it did not destroy our beach communities because of the work of the USACE. WE value our relationship very deeply with the USACE Region 3. We’re grateful for that, but we’re in a situation where we need to restore the dunes that have protected and saved these beach communities. Do you think it might be possible to direct a portion of the remaining emergency funds from the Super Storm Sandy Disaster Appropriation towards the Corps Flood Control and Coastal Emergency Account, perhaps through an amendment to WRDA later this spring?
A (Darcy): The appropriations bill for Sandy money is pretty specific that the damages have to have been caused by Super Storm Sandy. So, I’m not optimistic that we’d be able to use those funds without some kind of legislative direction.