10 November 2007

US Water Resources Development Act of 2007

Primary sources:
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)
Additional sources include Wikipedia and specific links provided below.

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.
Numerous amendments to previous WRDA legislation (1986, 1996, 1999, 2000), Flood Control Acts (1946, 1948), and the River and Harbor Act (1960) were included. One important new rule is that the USACE is directed to "expedite any authorized planning, design, and construction of a flood damage reduction project for an area that, within the preceding five years, has been subject to flooding that resulted in the loss of life and caused damage of sufficient magnitude to warrant a declaration of a major disaster by the President." Basically that means areas on the Gulf Coast affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, areas that suffered floods and debris flows in California in 2005 and 2006, and a large number of individual storm-related flood events in many areas of the country, but mostly in the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River basins.

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.

"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."
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.

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:
  1. There is no single federal agency tasked with assessing, managing, and fixing that infrastructure.
  2. The bill, meaning both the legislation and the costs, will be HUGE!
We must assume that the figure quoted by the President for future appropriations includes the "funding for projects already in the pipeline," which should have been paid for in the bills that authorized those projects in the first place. This is a telling reference to the cost overruns emblematic of USACE projects. But let us not forget that the USACE is an agency of the Executive branch, not the Congress. If they can't finish the work on-schedule and on-budget, then they really need to look at how they do what they do. According to an editorial in the New York Times (listed above), "the water bill’s biggest shortcoming is the absence of far-reaching reforms of the Corps’ operations that were proposed by Senator Russell Feingold but rejected by the House. The reforms sought to impose discipline on a notoriously dysfunctional agency."

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:
  1. USACE receives or generates a project request in collaboration with stakeholders, including congressional representatives for the project's location.
  2. USACE scopes a project and takes bids from contractors; in a fair system, the lowest bid wins the contract.
  3. USACE submits a cost estimate to the Department of Defense, which generates the WRDA budget request.
  4. USACE gets less than the cost estimate from Congress.
  5. USACE issues contracts, which have been waiting at the ready, for the full project scope.
  6. USACE runs out of money for the project.
  7. 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.
  8. Project stakeholders and beneficiaries, when they realize what just happened, complain and campaign for more funding.
  9. Go to step 2 above and repeat the process for the remaining work.
Now don't get me wrong: I have friends at the Corps who do great work, and USACE contributions to science in hydrology, hydraulics, and other areas are legion. It's the bureaucracy that needs some adjustment. Actually, I think that earmarks (a.k.a. "pork") in the funding bills are the only way to go about it in a fair manner. Sounds a little strange, but here's my reasoning: provision of a general appropriation for those three main missions of the Corps' civil works programs creates, basically, a slush fund, and whomever is the fastest at laying out their project plans gets the money they need, regardless of merit. Once the money runs out, that's all there is, and any merited projects that come up for consideration after that time just get to wait for the next WRDA. With an earmark strategy, the merit of a given project is evaluated and debated at several levels of stakeholder and representative involvement, and then it's inclusion in the WRDA is available for fair debate in Congressional Committee and then in the House or Senate chamber upon presentation of the bill. Projects that make it that far must have some merit, and many of those go a long way toward the restoration and maintenance of the very infrastructure that the President laments. Prioritization is provided by competition; now it's up to the USACE to decide the order of projects, not their priority.

Finally, a comment on the "backlog" of USACE projects: hire more people and write more contracts!

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