Critics taking aim at water resource bill

WASHINGTON — Environmental and fiscal deficit hawk groups teamed up Monday to criticize the water resources infrastructure bill by Sen. David Vitter that they argued is both bad for the environment and too costly.

The bipartisan Water Resources Development Act by Vitter, R-La., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is resuming debate Tuesday on the Senate floor with a final vote expected this week. Those in opposition are attempting to rally those on the political left and right to defeat the legislation.

The bill, a version of which has not passed Congress since 1997, is intended to 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 in Terrebonne Parish.

Some of the amendments potentially up for votes this week, as proposed by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., attempt to delay upcoming changes to the National Flood Insurance Program, which could cause significant insurance premium hikes for Louisiana residents and others.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, criticized Landrieu’s amendments because they would keep the flood insurance program from becoming financially self-sufficient.

“We need to charge appropriate rates,” Ellis said.

The National Flood Insurance Program allows homeowners and businesses in flood zones that have trouble getting private insurance to obtain policies backed by the federal government. Nearly 500,000 people in Louisiana participate in the NFIP. The program has been in financial distress with a loss of $18 billion, largely due to payments made after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

Overall though, opposition to the Vitter-Boxer bill is partnering groups like Taxpayers for Common Sense and the National Wildlife Federation. President Barack Obama also is currently opposing the bill for environmental and financial concerns.

Environmental groups and some senators have complained that expediting the Corps of Engineers’ review processes would hurt the environment.

“The bill strikes at the environment by undermining protections that have been provided by the nation’s environmental laws for four decades,” said Melissa Samet, the senior water resources counsel for the National Wildlife Federation.

The bill, called WRDA, would expedite Corps of Engineers review processes to get projects, such as flood protection, moving more quickly. Failing to do so will result in financial penalties for the corps and other federal agencies.

But Boxer and Vitter have argued that the bill only makes the review processes more efficient. Boxer chairs the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee and Vitter is the committee’s ranking Republican.

“I can say very proudly that every single environmental law stays in place,” Boxer said last week.

Vitter, who declined comment Monday, previously said he is confident the bill will pass the Senate this week.

Samet said the bill could help some Louisiana coastal restoration and flood protection issues in the short term. But she argued that WRDA sets bad precedents for future rushed environmental reviews and additional river and waterway dredging projects that can hurt the fragile ecosystems and nearby estuaries and marshes.

Ellis argued that the legislation focuses more on authorizing new projects rather than properly addressing and prioritizing the Corps of Engineers’ already lengthy backlog.

Landrieu, who supports much of the bill, said that properly funding the Corps of Engineers backlog is a problem the bill cannot fully address.

“The real problem is bridging the gap between what we’ve authorized and what we can afford to build,” Landrieu said last week.