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Notes from the Hill: June 2016

The 2016 Water Resources Development Act

Russell McIntyre    |    Housing Policy

This May, congressional attention turned toward the passage of the new Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), a longstanding piece of federal legislation first enacted in 1974 and reauthorized nine times since. This bill is the main vehicle used by Congress to finance water infrastructure projects across the nation, including flood control efforts, environmental restoration measures, wastewater facility protection, and improvements to drinking water infrastructure. These are carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers, which is allocated funds from the federal government based on the size and scope of the projects. Congress is not required to pass a new WRDA every session – but there is often interest in doing so. Because WRDAs are the vehicles for authorizing new federal studies and projects, they are pork-barrel bills by design, and there is tremendous pressure by members of Congress seeking particular project authorizations to pass them. As evidenced by the decades-long hiatus between the 1976 and 1986 WRDAs, it is possible for Congress not to pass a WRDA bill. During this time, critical repairs and proposed projects piled up due to a lack of legislative authorization until 1986, at which point a new WRDA was passed with almost three hundred new authorizations.

The Army Corp of Engineers spent a good portion of this money upgrading our nation’s critical wastewater infrastructure. Wastewater treatment is significantly dependent upon gravity for the transmission of wastes to treatment facilities. As a result, some of the nation’s largest wastewater treatment facilities operate in low-lying areas, where existing flood risks are exacerbated by the impacts of climate change such as increases in the severity of rainfall events and sea-level rise. To address this issue moving forward, precision geocoding, including parcel boundary information, elevation data, flood zone determination, and more, will need to be integrated with hazard exposure, vulnerability and reconstruction cost data. This will aid the Army Corp of Engineers in assessing current risks and provide decision support as they make recommendations for future risk management, investment and construction options.

Federal policymakers are eager to understand the flood risks facing our nation’s wastewater utilities and to make significant future investments in resilience measures. In March of this year, CoreLogic participated in a Congressional briefing on Capitol Hill, focusing on the vulnerability of critical water infrastructure. The briefing highlighted select counties throughout the United States that have experienced recent disruptions, with CoreLogic Chief Scientist Howard Botts further illuminating the scope of risk posed to treatment facilities nationwide.

In late April, WRDA 2016 was voted out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee by a wide 19-1 margin, highlighting the bipartisan concern surrounding our nation’s infrastructure. The House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee unanimously approved its own version of the bill in late May by a voice vote, and expects to debate the bill on the floor soon. Once each chamber passes its version of WRDA 2016, they will meet to iron out any differences before voting on the bill’s final passage. The Senate bill’s sponsor and committee chairman, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), said he expects Congress to pass the legislation in the midsummer work period, between June 7th and July 15th. This sets an ambitious timeline, especially considering the overall lack of legislation that usually accompanies a presidential election year. However, Senator Inhofe’s push has many supporters in the lower chamber of Congress, with several members in the House stating his timeline is feasible. Improving infrastructure, from highways to airports to wastewater treatment facilities, tends to be a bipartisan issue, as it gives elected officials the opportunity to point to physical improvements they’ve made for their constituents while in office. As a result, WRDA 2016 appears much more likely to pass than a majority of legislation currently sitting in Congress.

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