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Federal water spending bill could improve Missouri water quality and flood protection

Mississippi River, dredging, Eads
Rachel Heidenry | 2008 file photo

A $9 billion bill in Congress that could improve waterway navigation and water systems in Missouri is a step closer to being signed into law.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 399-25 to approve the Water Resources Development Act — in a rare show of bipartisan support. The Senate passed its version of the bill earlier last month. 

The Water Resources Development Act, authorized every two years, gives the green light to the Army Corps of Engineers to improve navigation, water quality and work on other water projects.

The Senate version of the bill, more comprehensive than the House, includes plans to replace lead pipes, and repair levees in areas such as Kansas City. It also includes $25 million to dredge small ports along the Mississippi River.

Nathan Cummins, the Nature Conservancy's senior policy associate for federal campaigns, thinks the bill could promote better solutions for projects conducted in collaboration with the Corps.

"There's a provision to increase the Corps' ability to use natural solutions when looking at project function ... whether that be flood risk resilience, whether that be ecosystem restoration," Cummins said. 

For the past three years, the Nature Conservancy has been enhancing the Corps' pool-management program in the Mississippi River, a practice of changing water levels to maintain safety for barge operators. Recently, the project has revived wetlands along portions of the river near St. Louis. 

Brad Walker, Big Rivers director at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment is skeptical of the bill's ability to deliver. It does not appropriate taxpayer dollars for spending, but instead plans to address certain projects when legislators devote funds to it in the future.

Walker argues there isn't much to ensure that the federal agency will follow through on the provisions listed in the final draft of the bill.

The bill heads to a conference committee, where lawmakers will reconcile differences in the House and Senate versions. It likely will not be signed until the next president takes office. 

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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