U.S. Senate approves $12.3 billion water projects bill

Measure gives priorities, not funding

The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to approve a House-Senate agreement on a water projects bill that includes several billion-dollar undertakings in Louisiana.

Congress sent the White House a $12.3 billion water projects bill half the size of its last one seven years ago — before the economy sank into a deep recession that helped swell the government’s debt and before lawmakers swore off cherry-picking pet projects for folks back home.

With a 91-7 vote Thursday, the Senate approved legislation that the U.S. House passed Tuesday. Key lawmakers, including Sen. David Vitter, R-La., spent six months blending separate House and Senate versions approved last year.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act mainly authorizes 34 projects over the next decade — essentially, putting them on the federal government’s “to-do” list — rather than appropriating money for them. Securing an appropriation for the projects would require a second, more challenging round of legislation.

The biggest Louisiana project in the bill is “Morganza to the Gulf,” a nearly 100-mile-long series of levees and flood-control gates in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes with a $10.3 billion price tag.

“It will take serious funding to make a $10.3 billion project like Morganza a reality,” Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said Thursday in a prepared statement.

She criticized President Barack Obama’s budget for including $4.6 billion for the entire U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nationwide. She said the state would have to find money from other sources.

Landrieu also applauded Vitter, a ranking member of the Senate committee that handled the measure, for his work on the water infrastructure bill.

“This is a strong, bipartisan bill,” Vitter said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California liberal Democrat who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee handling the bill, hailed its passage as a “good day” for a host of interests.

Some conservative and watchdog groups complained the bill was still bloated with unnecessary spending. But it had widespread support from state and local officials and business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as legislation that will produce jobs and enhance commerce.

The seven votes against the bill all were cast by Republicans. One of those opposed, Arizona Sen. John McCain, said the bill did not do enough to rein in costs.

“It’s still full of unnecessary and unwanted projects,” he said.

Others who voted against it were Sens. Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma; Richard Burr, of North Carolina; Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin; Jeff Flake, of Arizona; Mike Lee, of Utah; and Pat Roberts, of Kansas.

Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, who is challenging Landrieu’s re-election, said in his prepared statement: “Morganza will protect our coast from future storm surge and protect our communities from flooding.”

“This bill includes measures that I have long advocated for that support deeper dredging of the Mississippi River and increased capacity at our ports, thus increasing maritime commerce and growing the economy,” Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, said in a prepared statement.

Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr., R-Lafayette, said in his prepared statement that the legislation provides some protections from hurricanes and flooding. Additionally, the legislation allows for deepening of channels to the Port of Iberia to continue.

The measure authorizes projects including the rebuilding of Whiskey Island, Raccoon Island, Trinity Island and Timbalier Island off the coast of Terrebonne Parish; and projects to reduce the loss of wetlands around Caminada Headland in Lafourche, Plaquemines and Jefferson Parishes.

Besides authorizing projects, the bill makes changes to how future projects can seek funding and sets specific time and cost limits for studies on potential projects. It eliminates unnecessary Corps reviews and speeds up environmental reviews for potential projects.

Henry C. Jackson, of the Associated Press; Gregory Roberts, of The Advocate Washington bureau; and Mark Ballard, of The Advocate Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report.