When it comes to federal legislative actions that impact flood control, the passage of water infrastructure legislation was undoubtedly the most significant action in 2014. After months of difficult negotiations in Congress, the House and Senate passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) and the President signed the bill into law in late spring of 2014. The legislation streamlines environmental review, increases flexibility for non-Federal sponsors, and authorizes key projects, most notably flood risk management projects.

Background

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Civil Works Program is the nation’s largest water resources program. Through Civil Works USACE plans, constructs and operates facilities for a wide variety of purposes, including navigation, flood control shoreline protection, hydropower, water supply and disaster response and recovery. USACE’s Civil Works priorities are set by Congress through Water Resources Development Acts – WRDAs – which authorize the study or construction of new projects, or modify existing projects. WRDA legislation is cumulative, and each WRDA builds on or amends prior WRDAs.

Historically WRDA reauthorization legislation has been passed every two years, but recently there have been larger gaps between WRDAs. The most recent WRDA was passed in 2007. Although a separate action by Congress to appropriate funding for such projects is necessary before they can be carried out, a project must first be authorized through WRDA legislation.

Typically, a WRDA bill will name and authorize funding for specific projects (also known as “earmarks”). Since 2007, the House has banned earmarks, requiring that future WRDA bills develop some other method of identifying and prioritizing funding for water resources projects.

Over the past decade, local interests have decided to not wait for the Federal government to authorize and appropriate funding for water resources projects and have instead moved forward to fund local projects with the promise that if the Federal government authorizes the project later, the locals would get credit for the non-Federal share of the cost of the Federal project. Particularly in California’s Central Valley, where local entities in and around Sacramento have moved ahead to fund and build local projects for flood protection, authorization through WRDA has taken on increased importance.

Main Elements of WRRDA

The key elements of WRRDA 2014 are the following:

  • It authorizes more than $12 billion in new Corps civil works projects, by authorizing all projects (34 total) that have been recommended by the Chief of Engineers (rather than specific earmarks)
  • It creates a public-private partnership program to leverage private funds for project implementation
  • It mandates faster Corps project reviews (i.e., by setting hard deadlines on the time and cost of Corps studies)
  • It creates flexibility for non-Federal sponsors by expanding their ability to contribute funds to expedite studies and permitting
  • It requires the Corps to allow for regional variances with respect to vegetation on levees with input from state and local entities

Projects Authorized by WRRDA

Well-known projects authorized by WRRDA include Louisiana’s Morganza to the Gulf flood protection project, which would protect development and remaining marshland from hurricane storm surge, and California’s Natomas Levee Improvement Project, which would complete flood protection work and lift a moratorium on development in the Sacramento area. While the Sacramento area project’s inclusion in WRRDA is an important step forward, there is still uncertainty about the timing of appropriations for the work. In the meantime, the Sacramento area will apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a change in zone designation to one that allows some development (currently there is an effective moratorium on development because of the restriction FEMA zone).

The next step is for USACE to develop implementation guidance, which will guide the process by which non-Federal sponsors and USACE will work together to implement the law. Passage of WRRDA in 2014 is being hailed as a bipartisan success that will result in important investments in infrastructure, the creation of jobs, and a more practical role for the Corps in water infrastructure projects around the nation.