Senate Begins WRDA Deliberations

On Wednesday, February 28, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing to discuss the projects, programs and priorities of the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) water infrastructure for the development of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2024.  The hearing’s two witnesses discussed challenges to implementing previous WRDA provisions and needs for the upcoming bill. Click their name below to view their written testimony:  

  • The Honorable Michael C. Connor – Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works 
  • Lieutenant General Scott A. Spellmon – 55th Chief of Engineers and Commanding General, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers 

The Water Resources Development Act is a bill that has been passed on a biennial schedule since 2014, reauthorizing funding for important water infrastructure works projects and priorities for the USACE. According to Connor, the Army maintains 13,000 miles of coastal navigation channels, 12,000 miles of inland waterways, 715 dams, 241 locks, 14,700 miles of levees, and hydropower plants at 75. This infrastructure plays a critical role in risk reduction from flooding and the impacts of climate change. WRDA 2022 authorized 94 feasibility studies and 25 construction projects that enable the USACE to continue to address critical infrastructure needs.   

Both the chair—Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE)— and the ranking member—Sen. Shelley Capito (R-WV)—shared in their excitement for another bipartisan WRDA in 2024. They indicated that fellow lawmakers have made over 1,200 requests for the bill. However, over half of these requests relate back to provisions from previous WRDA legislation that have not yet been implemented. Spellmon identified two problems with implementing the legislation. First, the timing of legislation with the USACE’s budgeting process is less than ideal. WRDA 2022 was passed in December of 2022, but at that point the recommended FY24 USACE budget had already been submitted to the Secretary of the U.S. Army for 90 days. Similarly, it will likely be 2026 before WRDA 2024 priorities can be included in the USACE budget. Second, making all the provisions fit under a topline budget number is challenging. However, USACE is using other funds when possible (e.g., Department of Defense funds for workforce planning). Connor added that USACE coordination with other federal entities can open the door to delays. 

(Ed. Note: The Corps is also unique that it occasionally gets one-time emergency funding that can dwarf its regular, annual budget. Its IIJA funding can affect the WRDA bill, as a House committee noted yesterday.)

Because many of the great provisions of previous WRDAs have yet to be implemented, Carper and Capito indicated that WRDA 2024 will be a “policy lite” bill, focusing on removing obstacles for implementing outstanding provisions. Both witnesses identified their priorities for the committee’s consideration, which they hoped would be reflected in WRDA 2024. For Connor, these included: 

  • Maintaining the Nation’s inland waterways and coastal ports to support supply chains and economic growth 
  • Building innovative, climate-resilient infrastructure to reduce risk to communities and aquatic ecosystems 
  • Modernizing the civil works programs to better serve the needs of our Nation, including tribal and disadvantaged communities 
  • Investing in research and development to deliver water resource challenges 
  • Strengthening communications and relationships to solve water resource challenges 
  • Improving cost estimates for future water resource projects and the ability to deliver projects within those estimates 

Spellmon’s priorities included: 

  • Identifying the highest priority potential investments for the Army Civil Works Program 
  • Starting with the maintenance of our existing infrastructure 
  • Ensuring that the USACE delivers studies and finishes quality projects safely, on time, and within budget 

The remaining duration of the hearing saw Senators asking specific questions about timelines and implementation challenges for projects in their states. 

The importance of the infrastructure maintained by the USACE was made clear throughout the hearing. Continued funding for the maintenance and improvements of this infrastructure is critical to mitigating climate change impacts across the country and continuing to enable commerce on our inland and coastal waterways systems.  

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