A water infrastructure bill shepherded by Sen. John Barrasso passed by a vote of 99-1 last Wednesday, a significant bipartisan victory in a session overshadowed by partisan headlines.
Drafted in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the America’s Water Infrastructure Act will provide significant amounts of new spending on a plethora of infrastructure projects by the Army Corps of Engineers, including the deepening of “nationally significant” ports, the maintenance of inland waterways, the upgrade of various dams and irrigation systems and increasing water storage infrastructure. The bill, according to a press release, will also set up a process to deauthorize $4 billion in “unnecessary” projects, allowing the offset of some of the cost and a loosening of the roughly 1,000 project-long backlog currently faced by the Corps of Engineers.
Meant for renewal every two years, the bill, which passed out of committee in June, also restores millions of dollars in funding for water infrastructure that have gone without congressional reauthorization for decades, including $4.4 million in funds for a safe drinking water program. According to a June estimate from the Congressional Budget Office, the proposal will — if fully funded — cost taxpayers roughly $4.5 billion over the next five years and $6.9 billion total over the next decade.
“Passing major water infrastructure legislation has united the Senate,” Barrasso tweeted shortly after the bill’s passage. “Infrastructure is something we agree on. I am proud to send America’s Water Infrastructure Act to President @realDonaldTrump for his signature.”
Barrasso, who chairs that committee, was a key voice behind its passage and negotiated a reciprocal bill in the House of Representatives in September. Widely applauded, the bill fulfills numerous obligations to communities vulnerable to storms and natural disasters as well as tribal communities, with numerous provisions tailored directly to the tribes, earning the praise of the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Wyoming’s senior senator, Mike Enzi — who voted for the bill — also praised the legislation, noting its popularity with state leaders across party lines.
One of those leaders, Gov. Matt Mead, lauded the bill’s passage Wednesday.
“This bipartisan bill includes key provisions that would allow modification of Fontenelle Dam,” he said in a statement. “This is a critical project highlighted in my 2015 Water Strategy. Once completed, it could allow from 100,000 to 200,000 acre-feet of usable storage in the water-short Colorado River Basin, without changing the environmental footprint of the project.”
With the bill now headed to the president’s desk, Barrasso had the opportunity to celebrate its passage Wednesday on the floor of the Senate.
“The bill passed the full Senate 99-1,” Barrasso said. “President Trump, in his State of the Union, asked Congress to present him with infrastructure legislation. We have done that with regard to water infrastructure. This is a consequential, significant piece — the largest piece of the infrastructure legislation going to the president. It has broad support and across the country, including groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the Sierra Club. It addresses drinking water, wastewater, our ports, inland waterways, our irrigation systems and reservoirs. This is a bill — bipartisan-passed — that is good for our communities as well as the country, the economy as well as the environment.”
Despite its popularity, the legislation has some notable critics. In a report released Tuesday, the Heritage Foundation — an influential conservative think tank — slammed the bill as significantly flawed, particularly in its lack of reforms to how water infrastructure is currently constructed: by building up an insurmountable workload for the Corps of Engineers that can, at times, result in nothing getting done.
“A standard operating procedure of tolerating and exacerbating the backlog highlights that water infrastructure legislation is primarily about ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ log-rolling, and obtaining press release fodder,” the report reads. “Members of Congress seem more interested in congratulating themselves for obtaining an initial authorization than in making sure a project is strong enough to reach completion.”
The group called for stronger measures to cut the Corps of Engineer’s backlog, the elimination of minor projects (for example, $53.5 million for flood prevention around the Mamaroneck and Sheldrake rivers, tiny rivers near several golf courses in New York) and for finding other means of footing the bill, citing an anticipated $340 million sale of crude oil from the strategic petroleum reserve in 2028 — characterized by the Heritage Foundation as “fiscal gimmickry most foul.”
“When a significant authorization bill reaches a certain point in the legislative process, most legislators opt not to fight for reforms strenuously. ‘Why stick my neck out if it’s just going to pass anyway?’ is often the line of thought,” David Ditch, the author of the report, concluded. “Yet this is precisely the reason why policy problems are able to accumulate and fester until they eventually reach a crisis point. There are a multitude of flaws in the AWIA, many of which are a matter of good governance rather than left-versus-right ideology. Members of the Senate should rethink how they approach water infrastructure and the SPR.”
The bill’s passage, however, is another exception to the rule of Washington gridlock, marking the second major policy success in two weeks: last week, a massive slate of spending to combat the opioid crisis made its way to the president’s desk as well — despite providing little new funding, according to an analysis by the international British Medical Journal.