House committee slams USACE on water legislation

While the US' WRRDA 2014 is deemed a "transformative" piece of legislation, one year after its enactment implementation guidance from the Corps of Engineers has been found disappointing.

When the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) of 2014 was overwhelmingly approved by both chambers of Congress in May of last year, it was a big deal for a number of reasons: It had bipartisan support; it was the first such law to be passed since 2007, when water resources bills are supposed to adhere to a two-year cycle; and it included many provisions aimed at improving the country’s water infrastructure faster and more efficiently.

But one year after the law was enacted, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has found implementation guidance that must be provided by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to be disappointingly slow.

“While the WRRDA law is transformative, and in some places complicated, we remain disappointed at the pace and the prioritisation at which the Corps of Engineers is carrying out the drafting of the implementation guidance,” Bob Gibbs, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, said during a hearing on the implementation of WRRDA held on Wednesday.

“Even more concerning, the administration is purposefully misinterpreting the new project authorisation process under WRRDA,” said Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and sponsor of the water resources bill.

According to Shuster, WRRDA requires USACE to provide Congress with a list of non-federal project sponsor priorities that reflect the needs of the country. “Instead, the administration chose to provide Congress a list of their priorities, not the priorities of state and local governments,” he said.

Gibbs acknowledged that the Corps of Engineers had made some progress in drafting implementation guidance, but only for the less complex provisions of the law.

For more complex provisions, which include those for which WRRDA was viewed as so valuable, there has been no progress, it was found. These provisions include the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), which is modelled closely on the successful Transportation Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA), the US Department of Transportation’s programme that provides financial support for transportation public-private partnerships.

“Even some of the common-sense provisions, like the use of benchmarking for non-federal improvements to federal projects, permit acceleration activities through the Section 214 programme, or the public-private partnership provisions, are suffering from what appears to be inattention from the Corps,” Gibbs said.

He did, however, close his speech on a positive note, saying: “While implementation has not met the Committee’s expectations so far, we look forward to continue working with the Corps to ensure WRRDA 2014 is carried out in a fashion that benefits the nation.”

Congress aims to get water resources development legislation back on a two-year cycle, according to Shuster.