Waterway resources bill passes U.S. Senate

The Senate approved Wednesday Sen. David Vitter’s waterway resources bill that is intended to speed up flood-protection projects such as southern Louisiana’s Morganza to the Gulf plan in Terrebonne Parish, expedite U.S. Army Corps of Engineers processes, and set aside more dollars for river dredging.

The bipartisan Water Resources Development Act, sponsored by Vitter, R-La., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., won with an 83-14 vote.

The legislation, a version of which has not passed Congress since 2007, next moves to the U.S. House for consideration. House members are currently working on their own version of the bill.

Boxer chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Vitter is the ranking Republican member.

Vitter called the vote a “good success” on a “jobs bill” that will benefit waterway commerce nationwide.

“But it’s nowhere more important than in southern Louisiana,” Vitter said after the votes.

The legislation reauthorizes projects, including the five-year-old federal Louisiana Coastal Area Program that is supposed to support coastal protection and barrier island projects. The bill also could speed up the west shore Lake Pontchartrain flood protection project that would help areas such as LaPlace, that were flooded by Hurricane Isaac.

The 21-year-old, $13 billion, oft-delayed Morganza project — Army corps officials have said they expect the price to decrease — involves a series of levees, locks and other systems through Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes that should, when complete, protect about 200,000 people against storm surges such as those caused by Hurricane Katrina.

“We’re going to have that project authorized and be able to move forward,” Vitter said, calling it “absolutely critical” for the region.

Vitter said he is optimistic the project will begin implementation next year.

Boxer, who is currently feuding with Vitter over White House Cabinet nominations, praised him for working well with her on the water resources bill.

“We have our differences in a number of areas, but when it comes to the infrastructure of our country, we come together,” Boxer said.

The WRDA bill 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.

The legislation also would over a 10-year period inhibit raiding the $8 billion Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, to be used to pay for river dredging and port improvement projects. The fund is routinely raided each year for other federal spending.

The White House and environmental groups have argued that the legislation could harm environmental impact studies and financially harm the federal agencies that are already dealing with budget cuts.

Other organizations have complained the legislation fails to properly prioritize and address the corps’ almost $60 billion existing backlog of projects, especially when the corps has an annual budget of less than $2 billion.

The legislation was approved after votes on a series of amendments that offered tweaks to the bill.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., voted for the measure and praised its passage.

“The bill is terrific for Louisiana,” Landrieu said, commending Vitter and Boxer. “We will be one of the few states to have new authorizations for projects.”

But she and Vitter shared one major complaint.

The one key amendment that was blocked Tuesday from receiving a vote was a Landrieu proposal to delay upcoming rate hikes in the National Flood Insurance Program.

Nearly 500,000 people in Louisiana participate in the NFIP. The program has been in financial distress with a loss of more than $20 billion, largely due to payments made after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

Legislation approved last year sought to make the program more self-sustaining, but parish and business officials through southern Louisiana have complained that the changes will causes rates to skyrocket for many by more than 20 percent a year and make properties unsellable.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., blocked the amendment through a procedural maneuver while arguing in favor of making the NFIP financially self-sufficient. Landrieu and Vitter contended that the program must be tweaked to make flood insurance affordable and sustainable.

Landrieu said she plans to file stand-alone legislation to address the matter as soon as Thursday.

“I’m going to not stop trying until the flood insurance program is what it’s supposed to be — self-sustainable, accessible and affordable,” Landrieu said.

“I am certainly going to fight with her,” Vitter added.