News Column

Federal Water Bill Has a Slippery Feel

April 8, 2013

The porcine reference comes from Steve Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, an advocacy group that pays special attention when multibillion dollar pieces of legislation suddenly pick up steam.

That's the case with a bill of particular interest in the St. Louis region, the Water Resources Development Act, which authorizes more than $20 billion worth of river projects and changes the way they get sized up on the way to approval.

They call this bill WRDA in the acronym land of Washington, and Ellis is right about its extraordinary speed of advancement.

Granted, there hasn't a WRDA since 2007, so there's pent-up demand. But it took only two days after it was released for a Senate committee to pass it -- unanimously.

Now it may reach the floor as early as Wednesday, partly because senators can't get heavy legislation on guns and immigration ready for action -- and a bipartisan desire to deliver water projects back home.

There's fine-tuning underway and amendments getting prepared, but here are a few things to watch for:

-- Money for Mississippi River locks. The navigation industry is pressing for an annual appropriation of $380 million over the next decade, in part by agreeing to hike the 20-cent per gallon fuel tax shippers pay by nine cents.

That money could enable faster replacement of locks situated on the Mississippi that the industry claims are antiquated. A key here could be whether the Senate Finance Committee claims jurisdiction or allows taxing provisions in a water bill.

-- Army Corps of Engineers authority. To environmental advocates, the most objectionable portion of the legislation would streamline environmental studies and give the corps the ability to "strong-arm" agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, as conservationists see it.

-- Southern Illinois dam project. The navigation industry is pressing to "federalize" the Olmsted Lock and Dam on the Ohio River in Southern Illinois, meaning that shippers want taxpayers to begin picking up the slack for a project that has tripled in cost and fallen a decade behind schedule. Taxpayer groups don't think shifting the burden to taxpayers is a good idea.

-- Army Corps of Engineers operations. The corps has a backlog of $60 billion of unfinished projects partly because they stay on the books once authorized by Congress (like the proposed 1950s-era St. Johns Bayou-New Madrid Floodway in southeastern Missouri, so controversial that it could hold up confirmation of the new EPA administrator.)

Would-be reformers want a provision requiring that every ten years, the corps updates operations plans and water control manuals like that governing the Missouri River.

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(c)2013 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Distributed by MCT Information Services

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Source: (c)2013 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Distributed by MCT Information Services


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