- 23 October 2007 (presented to President Bush): THOMAS (Library of Congress)
- Water Resources Development Act of 2007
- 3 November 2008: New York Times
- Bush Vetoes Water Bill, Citing Cost of $23 Billion
- 7 November 2007: New York Times
- Republicans Join Vote to Override Water Bill Veto
- 9 November 2007: New York Times
- Congress Turns Back Bush’s Veto in a Test of Power
- 10 November 2007: New York Times
- Hope for the Everglades (Editorial)
The US Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2007 was just passed into law by veto-overriding votes in the House and Senate. It was the first such legislation in seven years: the last WRDA was passed before President Bush entered office, the phrase "Global War on Terror" entered the media lexicon, and Hurricane Katrina became one of the largest natural disasters to drive internal migration in this country since the Mississippi floods of 1927.
The WRDA of 2007 is truly a massive piece of legislation, detailing $23B in federal budget authorizations for more than 900 US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) projects at a rate of approximately $5B per year over the next five years (FY 2008 through FY 2012). The actual rate of allocations (spending) on the projects will be a bit slower, with about $11B to be spent during the allocation period and another $12B in the ten years after that. A very small amount of the costs will be offset by about $12M in revenues from land transfers, debt restructuring, and other minor provisions.
The USACE is tasked primarily with water resource studies and capital projects in flood control, inland navigation, shoreline protection, and environmental restoration. The WRDA authorizes some large amounts for high-profile projects: $3.5B for projects in Louisiana, including a dedicated Hurricane Protection Project, and $2B for restoration work in the Florida Everglades. A total of $3.6B is authorized for a combination of navigation-oriented and ecosystem restoration projects in the Upper Mississippi River basin. About 50 projects authorized in previous legislation were removed from the USACE slate with this WRDA.
Overall, specific construction and restoration projects in 24 states were authorized in the WRDA, and studies for future projects were directed for many more locations:
- Flood damage reduction studies in 20 states.
- Emergency streambank protection studies in eleven states.
- Navigation studies in eight states.
- Environmental quality improvement studies in seven states.
- Aquatic ecosystem restoration studies in 21 states.
- Shoreline protection, sometimes known as "beach-building," studies in six states and in the US Protectorate of Guam.
- Channel dredging and clearing studies in one state.
- Studies toward the prevention and mitigation of damage due to previous navigation projects in two states.
- Assessments of river basins and watersheds in five states.
Looking toward a future in which water resources are an increasingly contentious issue in many areas of the US, the WRDA authorizes the USACE, "at the request of a governmental agency or nonfederal interest, to provide technical assistance in managing water resources, including the provision and integration of hydrologic, economic, and environmental data and analyses." Numerous additional provisions specify how this is to be undertaken, including the adoption of risk analysis approaches to project feasibility and cost estimates and the consideration of alternatives in water resource problem assessments to promote integrated water resources management (IWRM) concepts.
All of this sounds good, right? Greater guidance, responsibility and oversight for a federal agency in search of its original purpose. Peer review of project studies, and the review of certain flood-related project design and construction activities by independent experts. A seemingly proactive treatment of serious water- and flood-related issues around the country. Potential relief for the drought-stricken Southeast and water-poor West of the US. And the first such legislation to do all of this in seven years, during which time we've seen the most costly flood-related disasters in US history and had our glimpse of the future of water issues in the US by way of the IPCC climate change studies and related research.
Alas, President Bush's veto message was read on 5 November before the House of Representatives, and included the following text:
"This bill lacks fiscal discipline. I fully support funding for water resources projects that will yield high economic and environmental returns to the Nation and each year my budget has proposed reasonable and responsible funding, including $4.9 billion for 2008, to support the Army Corps of Engineers' (Corps) main missions. However, this authorization bill makes promises to local communities that the Congress does not have a track record of keeping. The House of Representatives took a $15 billion bill into negotiations with a $14 billion bill from the Senate and instead of splitting the difference, emerged with a Washington compromise that costs over $23 billion. This is not fiscally responsible, particularly when local communities have been waiting for funding for projects already in the pipeline. The bill's excessive authorization for over 900 projects and programs exacerbates the massive backlog of ongoing Corps construction projects, which will require an additional $38 billion in future appropriations to complete.So $23B for this bill, plus $38B in future appropriations, for a total of $61B in long-term funding requests. That's still less than the additional $70B that the President wants for the next six months of military operations just in Iraq, and far less than the $459B non-combat Defense funding bill upon which the House and Senate just agreed. The President says that he had about $5B in the last annual budget for the types of projects authorized for the USACE. That means that, over the next fifteen years, discounting inflation and increases in the requested amount, the President's plans would cost more and be planned less well; annual budget requests, with their high variability and changing priorities, would likely inhibit continuity in the development and execution of long-term projects, and would not allow the lead time that the WRDA presents to the USACE to get their projects and priorities in order.
"This bill does not set priorities. The authorization and funding of Federal water resources projects should be focused on those projects with the greatest merit that are also a Federal responsibility. My Administration has repeatedly urged the Congress to authorize only those projects and programs that provide a high return on investment and are within the three main missions of the Corps' civil works program: facilitating commercial navigation, reducing the risk of damage from floods and storms, and restoring aquatic ecosystems. This bill does not achieve that goal. This bill promises hundreds of earmarks and hinders the Corps' ability to fulfill the Nation's critical water resources needs--including hurricane protection for greater New Orleans, flood damage reduction for Sacramento, and restoration of the Everglades--while diverting resources from the significant investments needed to maintain existing Federal water infrastructure. American taxpayers should not be asked to support a pork-barrel system of Federal authorization and funding where a project's merit is an afterthought.
"I urge the Congress to send me a fiscally responsible bill that sets priorities. Americans sent us to Washington to achieve results and be good stewards of their hard-earned taxpayer dollars. This bill violates that fundamental commitment. For the reasons outlined above, I must veto H.R. 1495."
The President claims concern for federal water infrastructure, but has not put forward a bill to address those issues. I see two problems with such an unlikely prospect:
- There is no single federal agency tasked with assessing, managing, and fixing that infrastructure.
- The bill, meaning both the legislation and the costs, will be HUGE!
I get the impression, following some of the USACE work that has made the news over the years, that the Corps' SOP runs approximately as follows:
- USACE receives or generates a project request in collaboration with stakeholders, including congressional representatives for the project's location.
- USACE scopes a project and takes bids from contractors; in a fair system, the lowest bid wins the contract.
- USACE submits a cost estimate to the Department of Defense, which generates the WRDA budget request.
- USACE gets less than the cost estimate from Congress.
- USACE issues contracts, which have been waiting at the ready, for the full project scope.
- USACE runs out of money for the project.
- Contractors, and thuse the USACE, leave the work unfinished; it's a free-market economy, and construction engineers and workers won't work on it if they don't get paid for it.
- Project stakeholders and beneficiaries, when they realize what just happened, complain and campaign for more funding.
- Go to step 2 above and repeat the process for the remaining work.
Finally, a comment on the "backlog" of USACE projects: hire more people and write more contracts!