WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate began debate Tuesday on the comprehensive water infrastructure bill that 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.
The legislation is sponsored by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
The Water Resources Development Act, a version of which has not passed Congress since 1997, is opposed by President Barack Obama in its current wording as well as by some environmentalist and congressional appropriators.
Votes on some amendments are scheduled to begin Wednesday.
“This bill is about infrastructure and jobs and certainly we can agree on that,” Vitter said of his odd partnership with Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee.
Vitter is the committee’s ranking Republican.
One of the amendments filed for the bill Tuesday is an attempt by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to delay upcoming changes to the National Flood Insurance Program, which could see insurance premium increases for Louisiana residents and others.
The flood insurance reauthorization passed Congress last year as a late addition to an omnibus transportation bill, so amendments to it were not considered.
Landrieu’s amendment would stall premium rate increases until the Federal Emergency Management Agency conducts an affordability study and the results are assessed.
“I have been warning about these increases for some time and calling on FEMA to address these rate increases for nearly a year,” Landrieu said in her announcement. “We don’t have time to wait for FEMA — we need to stop these rate increases now. Families and businesses in Louisiana are already paying exorbitant rates for flood insurance and some could see those rates go up dramatically under these proposals.”
As for the bill, it would expedite Corps of Engineers review processes to get projects, such as flood protection, moving more quickly. Failing to do so would result in financial penalties for the corps and other federal agencies.
The bill also would begin reserving more funds each year for river dredging in Louisiana and for ports projects through the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which is annually raided each year for at least half of its dollars.
“It’s been an enormous frustration to many of us that this trust fund is raided each year,” Vitter said, noting that a compromise was made to phase in the protection of the trust fund dollars over 10 years, rather than doing it all at once.
The Obama administration announced late Monday that it opposes the bill in its current form partly because it would increase the federal responsibility for river and port maintenance, as opposed to a more balanced federal mix with states and local resources.
The administration also complained that the bill increases the Corps of Engineers’ responsibility, limits its transparency and could have negative environmental impacts.
“The (Obama) administration is deeply concerned that the project permitting provisions … are counterproductive, may actually slow project approval, and do not adequately protect communities, taxpayers or the environment,” the Obama administration stated.
Boxer argued that the bill only makes the review processes more efficient.