Environmentalists are pushing back against the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, saying that a part of the bill that supporters say increases efficiency actually guts the environmental-review process.
The bill, which the House takes up Wednesday, would set an outside limit of three years for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete a feasibility study for proposed water-resources transportation and infrastructure projects. As part of the feasibility study, the Corps would also be required to issue an environmental-impact statement.
Currently, there is no limit for the amount of time the Corps can spend to create an environmental-impact statement.
Although the bill does not specify a time limit for the environmental-review process, by imposing an outer limit of three years for the entire feasibility study to be completed, environmentalists say it will not allow the Corps adequate time to consider the full environmental impact of a project in cases where it would take longer than three years for the review to be completed.
"This bill will make it very difficult to review the environmental impacts of major water projects and will significantly cut out the public from projects that have huge impacts across the country," said Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
According to environmental activists, the problem isn't the time it takes to complete an environmental review; it's the fact that Congress hasn't appropriated the funds for the Corps to carry out its work.
"The Corps has a backlog of billions of dollars worth of projects," said Melissa Samet, a senior water-resources counsel for the National Wildlife Federation. "No matter how quickly an environmental study is completed, these projects still then have to get in line for limited funding."
At least one of the bill's cosponsors agrees that stalled appropriations account for the bulk of delays. "The principle cause of delay in Corps projects is either the uncertainty of a funding source or the inadequacy of a funding source," said Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., ranking member on House Transportation and Infrastructure's Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee.
Bishop didn't side entirely with environmentalists, however. "I think it is incumbent upon the Congress and the Corps to see to it that environmental reviews are sufficient to protect the environment," he said. "What we're looking to do is move the projects from conceptual stage to construction more quickly, and this is a part of it. But we're trying to move projects forward in a way that is environmentally responsible."
Other lawmakers are trying to find a middle ground. An amendment proposed by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., submitted Tuesday morning, would put on hold the bill's provisions that speed up the review process until Congress appropriates sufficient funds to reduce the backlog of projects to less than $20 billion.
"It's a very reasonable compromise," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., one of the cosponsors of the amendment. "We're not trying to strip out all these provisions. We just are saying let's take care of the backlog on existing projects first. I'm in favor of analyzing the review process to make it better, but having artificial timetables and cutting people out, that's not going to get more work done effectively. That's a lose-lose proposition."
The bill has bipartisan backing and was favorably reported out of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee with no dissenting votes in September.