House committee passes legislation requiring environmental reviews of Army Corps of Engineers projects; will it be enough to silence the critics?

Heather A. McTavish
Government Relations Associate
APWA Washington Office

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civil works program is the nation's largest water resources program. The Corps' responsibilities include navigation, flood control, shoreline protection, hydropower, dam safety, water supply, recreation, environmental restoration and protection, and disaster response and recovery. The Corps estimates that, on average, their civil works projects prevent $20 billion in flood damages every year (US Congress). The Corps has been criticized in recent years for pricey civil works projects. Critics say the costs of the projects outweigh their benefits and they do not adequately protect the environment.

The United States House of Representatives Water Resources Subcommittee has jurisdiction over the Corps' civil works program. The subcommittee is also responsible for enacting a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) every two years. This legislation typically contains project authorizations, modifications and deauthorizations, program revisions and policy initiatives, and related provisions involving Corps activities. The last WRDA bill was enacted in 2000.

During 2002, the subcommittee held three days of hearings on projects, programs and policies during the development of the WRDA bill. During these hearings, testimony was received from 30 witnesses, including Members of Congress, the Administration, project sponsors, national water resources development organizations, and state and local officials. The legislation was marked up by the full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The legislation was never considered by the House.

On June 23, 2003, Chairman Don Young (R-AK) and Chairman John Duncan (R-TN) introduced H.R. 2557, the Water Resources Development Act of 2003. The legislation provisions include:

  • Reaffirming the importance of the two-year cycle of Water Resources Development Acts to authorize, modify, and improve projects, programs and policies of the Army Corps of Engineers.

  • Authorizes the construction of nine projects relating to flood damage reduction, navigation, hurricane and storm damage reduction, and environmental restoration.

  • Streamlines and expedites the Army Corps of Engineers' project delivery and permit system.

  • Authorizes a number of small projects, modifies projects, and performs investigations related to the civil works program of the Corps of Engineers.

After two delayed markups of the bill and much compromise, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on July 23 approved H.R. 2557. The legislation authorizes more than $4 billion in beach, dredging, harbor and other water projects. Chairman Duncan also introduced two manager's amendments containing compromise language on overhauling Corps projects.

The compromise language provision requires that Corps water development projects exceeding $50 million would be subject to a review by a panel of independent experts. The panel would review all the conclusions and information the Corps had gathered on a specific project, including economic and environmental analyses. The panel's recommendations would not be binding.

The House bill also requires the Corps to include in its project planning additional details on minimizing detrimental environmental effects and changes. The bill provides for a list of "categorical exclusions" to be developed by the Corps for projects that would not have to undergo an environmental review.

The bill now heads to the House floor. Prospects for passage this year are slim as the Senate has no plans to consider a similar measure until next year.

Heather McTavish can be reached at (202) 408-9541 or at hmctavish@apwa.net.