Repair, Replacement, And Resilience: Setting The Course For Water Infrastructure Projects

2020-01-21T14:25:21+00:00 January 21, 2020|
Flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans area is visible from Air Force One Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005, as President Bush was able to survey the ravages of the storm during his return from Crawford, Texas to Washington D.C. (Photo credit: Paul Morse/White House)

Flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans area is visible from Air Force One Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005, as President Bush was able to survey the ravages of the storm during his return from Crawford, Texas to Washington D.C. (Photo credit: Paul Morse/White House)

From: Ocean News Weekly/ By: Ocean Leadership Staff 

What It Was

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment held a hearing titled “Proposals for a Water Resources Development Act of 2020.”

Why It Matters

Water infrastructure, from dams to ports, harbors, reservoirs, and more, is crucial to protect American health, homes, and businesses across the country. Creation of new water infrastructure and maintenance of old infrastructure creates jobs and serves essential functions, including providing safe drinking water, flood protection, and better commercial navigation. However, climate change has increased the incidence of severe weather events, from wildfires and major storms to flooding along the coasts and along rivers, creating the need for protective infrastructure in newly vulnerable sites and for innovative designs that can withstand new climate challenges. With these new challenges, inland waterways and water infrastructure can have even stronger impacts on coastal communities and ecosystems through increased agricultural runoff that can fuel harmful algal blooms, greater influxes of fresh water that can upset offshore ecosystems, and more. Changing conditions have made continual assessment and consideration of new, adapted and more resilient infrastructure even more important for the safety and economic well-being of the United States.

Key Points

The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), historically passed every two years and last passed in 2018, authorizes water resources studies and projects across the nation and sets policies for flood and storm damage reduction, navigation, and aquatic ecosystem restoration for the U.S Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). This hearing provided members with the opportunity to review reports and requests from USACE as well as new project and study requests submitted by nonfederal interests that will be the foundation for a new WRDA in 2020. The Honorable Rickey Dale “R.D.” James (Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, USACE) and Lieutenant General Todd T. Semonite (Chief of Engineers and Commanding General, USACE) spoke with members about their respective priorities for projects, improvements in efficiency for USACE’s process, and implications of climate change for this work.

Members raised concerns about the status of programs in their districts, inquiring about timelines of studies and work plans while reiterating the importance of these projects to the economies, habitats and public health of their communities. Witnesses assured members that their proposals were in progress, stressing that the sheer number of requests and careful balance required to appropriately prioritize plans and complete them most efficiently can sometimes take time. All agreed that projects most likely to provide high economic or environmental returns locally and nationally and address a significant risk to public safety should be prioritized, which includes many dam and flood reduction infrastructure plans.

Semonite named several challenges that have particularly impacted USACE activities recently: the high quantity of aging infrastructure, increased demand for navigation ways, changing weather patterns, and continued extreme weather events. In response to administration plans to exclude climate change from assessments of environmental impacts of infrastructure development, many members questioned how these new rules could coexist with processes in place for USACE projects. They expressed concern that without considering climate change, infrastructure would be flawed and unable to withstand increased extreme weather or changing environmental conditions , seeking assurance that climate change would remain a risk factor moving forward. Both James and Semonite committed to continue using USACE principles of incorporating the best science and data available in all projects. They explained how USACE has been and will continue adapting to new scientific discoveries and technology for the highest-quality infrastructure.

One of the biggest challenges facing USACE, Semonite explained, is not just finding the best engineering solution for an issue but finding a solution that satisfies the maximum number of stakeholders. Members were encouraged by improvements and innovation seen under leadership of the two witnesses but expressed a desire to continue improving efficiency and efficacy of USACE. Witnesses identified three main priorities for reform: using innovative tools, streamlining internal processes, and exploring alternative financing approaches. They also stressed the need for stronger partnerships between federal and nonfederal stakeholders. With the ability to leverage a broader range of financial resources, the presence of more nonfederal leadership, and the removal of barriers preventing nonfederal entities from moving forward with their own priority needs, USACE hopes to expedite backlog of projects, more efficiently allocate resources, and mitigate taxpayer risk.

What’s Next

Congress is working to draft Senate and House versions of the 2020 WRDA, which they will then have to formally introduce and pass.

Quotable

“WRDA has become a product of its own success. Our constituents demand and expect that we move forward in developing this legislation every Congress.” — Subcommittee Chairwoman Grace Napolitano (CA-32)

“When constructed, Corps projects ensure that communities are protected from floods, and that our Nation remains globally competitive through a reliable and efficient port and inland waterway system.”—Subcommittee Ranking Member Bruce Westerman (AR-4)

Related Coverage to Come

Want to receive articles like this straight to your inbox? Sign up for our newsletter!