Posted on November 17, 2020
In the aftermath of a bitterly contested election, House and Senate negotiators are finalizing the details of the Water Resources Development Act with an eye towards passage in the lame duck. If they incorporate the best of each chamber’s proposals, the final would do much to mitigate the risks of a warming world while addressing the flooding and water quality challenges facing frontline communities.
As sea levels rise and rainfall becomes more intense, flood control projects that incorporate wetlands, beaches and other natural features are one of the best ways to protect communities from inland flooding and coastal storms. For example, a 2018 study found that coastal wetland and oyster reef restoration can yield $7 in flood reduction benefits for every $1 spent. Natural infrastructure projects like these also often benefit quality of life by creating new recreational opportunities, protecting habitat for wildlife and improving water quality.
Both chambers’ bills contained important provisions that would level the playing field for these types of natural solutions, including by clarifying that the non-federal cost share is the same as for other, similar projects. The House bill — which passed unanimously — took additional steps to prepare the nation for extreme weather. For example, it created a mechanism for ensuring that the Army Corps of Engineers gives nature-based solutions a fair look as part of any feasibility study for new flood projects and requires the agency to incorporate the most current sea level rise projections into future coastal investments.
The bills outlined more granular solutions as well. For example, both bills took steps to remove barriers to reusing sand and sediment the Army Corps of Engineers is already dredging out of rivers. Where appropriate, these “dredge spoils” can be reused to create wildlife habitats that offer storm protections — such as the barrier islands in Louisiana that protect its eroding coast while hosting thriving colonies of waterbirds. A broader strategy on how to effectively deploy these materials could benefit restoration efforts nationwide.
The nation’s existing water infrastructure is simultaneously rapidly aging and increasingly strained by population growth and extreme storms. Furthermore, for far too long, communities of color and low-income communities have been disproportionately harmed by water pollution and floods while often being unable to fully access federal infrastructure assistance.
The final bill should significantly increase authorized federal spending for water infrastructure upgrades, and include provisions from both chambers that make this funding easier for rural and historically underserved communities to access. Negotiators should include a Senate provision requiring the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to analyze how states have historically dispersed federal assistance for clean and drinking water projects and to identify ways to distribute these funds more equitably. Any final bill should also advance critical House provisions that would help make flood risk reduction investments more equitable. The House bill proposed the creation of a 10-year pilot program focused on reducing storm and flood risks for economically disadvantaged communities — including for rural and minority communities — that could not otherwise afford the non-federal cost-share for a corps project. The House version would also make it easier for frontline and repeatedly flooded communities to access technical assistance; and would expand consultation requirements with Tribes and Indigenous groups.
In short, 2020’s Water Resources Development Act has the potential to meaningfully address long-standing water inequities while better preparing our country for increasingly extreme weather. If it does, it could be a model for how Congress can make progress in a deeply divided political landscape.
Jessie Ritter is the director of Water Resources and Coastal Policy at the National Wildlife Federation. Follow the organization on Twitter @NWF.