Environmentalists Attack Water Resources Act

WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 24: U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), chair of the Congressional Bike Caucus, appears at a rally by participants in the Brita Climate Ride on Capitol Hill on September 24, 2008 in Washington, DC. Over one hundred cyclists rode from New York City to Washington, DC, to advocate for action on climate change. 
National Journal
Oct. 22, 2013, 6:01 p.m.

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.

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