Vitter confident about waterway bill

Despite concerns from some environmental groups and Democratic senators, Sen. David Vitter said he is confident his comprehensive waterway infrastructure bill will receive full Senate approval by the end of next week.

Vitter’s Water Resources Development Act of 2013 would expedite U.S. Army Corps of Engineers processes, set aside more dollars for river dredging and speed up flood-protection projects like southern Louisiana’s Morganza to the Gulf plan.

The legislation, a version of which has not passed Congress since 1997, is jointly sponsored by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Vitter, of Louisiana and the ranking Republican on the committee.

Vitter said Tuesday that the Senate will take up the legislation next Tuesday and approve it as soon as May 9. The initial hope was for the bill to come up last week in the Senate after it sailed through committee without opposition, but the Senate floor consideration was delayed.

“I think it looks great,” Vitter said. “We’ve worked some issues that threatened to be speed bumps.”

While the legislation is backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many more groups, Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., wrote to Boxer last week with criticisms that the bill could expedite environmental impact studies too much to the point of overlooking environmental risks. They also complained about the proposal to fine the Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies for failing to meet deadlines when they are already dealing with budget cuts.

“We see no evidence that the National Environmental Policy Act is the cause of the delays of Army corps projects; most scholars in the field believe the delays are caused by lack of funding and the backlog of approved projects,” Wyden and Rockefeller wrote last week.

Vitter said he disagrees and he argued that he is “confident” the bill will pass, noting that Boxer, a stalwart Democrat, is on board.

“We need clear (environmental) regulations, but we need to meet deadlines,” Vitter said. “The point is to make decisions and move forward on a reasonable timeline.”

Vitter said amendments will be considered and that they are still tweaking language to better protect the funding of the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which is routinely raided for other spending, that is supposed to support river dredging and port projects in Louisiana and nationwide.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., is largely supportive of the legislation, but she wants to amend it to advance the overdue Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Lock replacement project in New Orleans and to fix the corps’ calculations for wetlands mitigation in southern Louisiana that have been criticized by state, business and environmental officials.

Landrieu was traveling Tuesday but she said in an email response that she thanks Boxer and Vitter and that the bill will benefit Louisiana.

“It (WRDA) also makes commonsense updates to corps policies for the entire nation to help advance projects more quickly and prioritize the areas with the greatest need,” Landrieu stated.

“As this legislation moves to the floor, I will work with Sens. Boxer and Vitter to further address important priories for Louisiana. But to truly meet Louisiana’s water resource needs, we must at least double the budget for the Army Corps of Engineers. Even with the de-authorizations that will occur due to this legislation, our country will have billions of dollars in backlogged, unconstructed, authorized projects. The current corps budget of $1.7 billion could easily be spent in Louisiana alone, and is not nearly enough to address the national need.”

Apart from speeding up the Corps of Engineers’ review and construction timelines, Vitter is particularly focused on getting the 20-years-in-the-making Morganza to the Gulf project moving and to protect the dollars in the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for river dredging projects.