Posted on February 1, 2023
While much of the country was relaxing over the winter holidays, federal lawmakers remained busy.
Before ending its session and swearing in new members, Congress passed a fiscal year 2023 budget with key provisions for water infrastructure and disaster recovery. That’s in addition to approving legislation that authorizes Army Corps of Engineers projects for flood protection, navigation, and environmental restoration.
Combined, the two bills run to more than 8,000 pages. Water sector advocates, though confounded by how some infrastructure funds are being allocated, were generally pleased with what the bills contain.
“Anybody who cares about water should be excited about what we accomplished at the end of last year,” Mae Stevens told Circle of Blue. Stevens, who works with environmental groups and utilities, is chair of the water practice at Banner Public Affairs, a lobby group.
The Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, is the legislation that authorizes Army Corps of Engineers projects. The bill focuses on flood protection, commercial waterways, and improving community engagement, particularly with Native American tribes and communities historically burdened by pollution.
Major projects authorized or modified in WRDA include:
- $1.8 billion Upper Barataria Basin project, a 30-mile levee to protect seven southeastern Louisiana parishes from storm surges.
- $34.4 billion Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration project, a massive system of levees, flood gates, dunes, and marsh restoration to safeguard the Texas Gulf Coast from hurricane storm surges.
- $3.2 billion for a larger lock at Soo Locks, a pivotal transit point for Great Lakes commercial shipping.
WRDA also made it easier for the Army Corps to deploy natural features such as marshes and dunes to guard against floods. And it authorized the Army Corps to study a second drinking water source or additional water storage for Washington, D.C.
The capital’s water supply is vulnerable, said Stevens, who worked on two previous WRDA bills as part of Sen. Ben Cardin’s staff. The Potomac River — the city’s sole drinking water source — could be compromised by industrial accidents, oil spills, or other incidents. Shutting down the Potomac water intake would put the city in a serious bind.
In an action separate from WRDA, the Army Corps issued final permits for a $2.3 billion environmental restoration project to rebuild eroding land along the Louisiana coast.
The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, a state project, will provide an off-ramp for sediment-laden water from the Mississippi River. Those land-building particles will be diverted during periods of high flow. Exiting the river at a point south of New Orleans, the sediment will be funneled to the Barataria Basin, where it is intended to reestablish coastal wetlands and protect inland areas from storm surges.
WRDA authorizes projects but does not fund them. Allocating money is the purpose of the appropriations bill.
That bill identified water infrastructure priorities. It allocated $140 million to rebuild water treatment facilities in New Mexico that were affected by last year’s Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire, the largest in state history.
The bill maintained the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds at 2022 spending levels. These low-interest loan funds are two primary sources of federal funding for water infrastructure.
Funding this year for the Clean Water SRF is $1.6 billion, while the Drinking Water SRF is $1.1 billion. Both will get several billion dollars annually over the next four years in supplemental funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Water groups, however, are upset with operational changes to the funds. Earmarks, which returned to the budget process last year, are being subtracted from the SRF totals. For water infrastructure, earmarks amounted to roughly half of the total funding for the SRFs in this budget.
The remaining SRF dollars will be distributed to the states according to a standard formula. This creates winners and losers. If your senator was especially good at lobbying for dollars, your state gets more than its usual SRF share.
For utilities in losing states, the result is a scramble for the leftovers, Stevens said. There might not be enough money in the SRFs for projects that would have been funded in the past.
“It means that every utility now really, really, really needs to go and get earmarks because they can’t count on the SRF funding in the state to be high enough,” she said.