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Government, Politics & Issues

Senate-passed water resources bill includes Mississippi River navigation study

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON – A major water resources bill approved Wednesday by the U.S. Senate calls for more public-private partnerships in river and harbor infrastructure, speeding up environmental reviews and studying ways to maintain Mississippi River navigation during severe droughts and floods.

All four senators from Missouri and Illinois backed the Water Resources Development Act, approved 83-14. The Senate included provisions pushed by three of those senators but rejected an amendment by U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Tom Coburn, R-Ok., to make it easier to strip unneeded water projects from the current backlog.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said a provision he had sponsored with U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and others authorizes a study of the entire Mississippi River Basin to help the Army Corps of Engineers improve its management to maintain navigation and protect lives and property, especially during times of severe flooding and drought.

“After coming so close to economic catastrophe earlier this year when we faced historic low water levels on the Mississippi River, and now facing severe flooding in parts of the state, it is clear that we need to be better prepared for extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent and more severe,” said Durbin. 

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who had cosponsored the Mississippi River study provision, also backed measures added to the water bill that would help secure dredging for some small ports along the Mississippi and encourage “resilient construction” of water infrastructure projects so they better withstand natural disasters.

Given the importance of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers to Missouri, Blunt said, “This is a big topic for us.” He is the co-chair of the Senate’s Mississippi River caucus.

Kirk said the navigation study included in the bill “will help make government and businesses that rely on the Mississippi River more prepared for the next flood or drought that threatens jobs and economic activity in Illinois and throughout the country.”

More than 20 new infrastructure projects would be authorized by the bill, including some that would make big ports more accessible to the larger container vessels that will carry more cargo after the Panama Canal expansion is completed in 2015. It aims to make sure that the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which is financed by user fees, is used entirely for harbor improvements. And it takes steps to speed the environmental review process and set up a new program to promote levee safety and inland waterway projects.

“Aging locks and dams contribute to delays along rivers like the Mississippi, holding back our potential for economic growth if left unattended,” said Kirk in a statement. “This act will reverse the growing backlog of projects, and I look forward to seeing the public-private partnership investments move forward to maximize efficiency and minimize costs to our taxpayers.”

Environmental and spending watchdog groups criticized the bill, and the administration of President Barack Obama expressed some concerns about its proposed changes in the environmental review process and the fact that the legislation does not do enough to lessen the $60 billion backlog of the Corps’ already approved construction projects.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the new projects authorized in the bill would cost more than $12 billion over the next decade if the funding is approved and construction begins on the projects. However, Kirk pointed out that is about half of the amount authorized in the last water resources bill, in 2007.

The legislation – if approved by the House and signed into law – would set up an independent “Infrastructure Deauthorization Commission” to review suggestions for canceling some previously approved water projects. But it greatly restricts the number of projects the commission could review.

“We’ve got billions of dollars in projects that were authorized by the ghost of earmarks past – and we need a process to get rid of any project lacking merit,” said McCaskill, an earmark opponent.

The Coburn/McCaskill amendment, defeated Wednesday in a 61-35 vote, would have blocked such restrictions so that the commission will be able to consider all previously authorized water resources projects for cancellation. Blunt and Kirk backed the amendment, while Durbin voted no.

“I’m disappointed“ that the amendment failed, McCaskill told reporters afterward, criticizing opponents to were, in effect, backing old earmarks. “Why wouldn’t we want to scrub all of the previously authorized projects to make sure they were a good use of public money?” she asked. “Why would they be afraid of that scrutiny?”

But McCaskill said she voted for final passage of the water resources bill because it is important for Missouri. “We have major water projects that are needed.” She said the margin of passage and bipartisan vote “gives it a shot in the House of Representatives,” which is led by Republicans.

An effort by Louisiana’s senators to impose a five-year delay on premium rate increases for people and businesses with government-subsidized flood insurance was blocked. Those rate hikes, which will affect millions of flood insurance holders, result from a law passed last year that aims to make the National Flood Insurance Program fiscally solvent.

Some environmental groups, which had pushed unsuccessfully for Senate changes, criticized the final bill. “This shortsighted bill will leave Americans at greater risk of flooding, damage our rivers and wildlife, and fleece taxpayers,” complained Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “Apparently, all it takes is a classic Washington pig roast to break the gridlock in the Senate.”

In a statement, Schweiger focused his criticism on the speeded-up environmental review process. He said the legislation “is vital for helping to restore national treasures like the Everglades and the Mississippi River Delta. Unfortunately, language in this bill undermines the bedrock environmental principle that the federal government should look before it leaps.

"For example, this bill will allow the Army Corps to fine other federal agencies up to $20,000 a week if they aren’t able to meet the new rushed deadlines for environmental review.”

Fiscal watchdog groups, including Taxpayers for Common Sense and Citizens Against Government Waste, also criticized the bill. In a letter to senators, the two groups complained that the Corps already was burdened by a $60 billion backlog in projects, and “we cannot simply pile more projects on the to-do list.”

But U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said she was “gratified by the overwhelming vote on final passage” of the bill. “Getting 83 votes in favor when bipartisanship is missing in the Senate is very important.  Now is the time for the House to act so we can ensure that the benefits of the bill are realized.”

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