Updated July 28, 2020
Water Resources Development Acts: Primer
Congress often titles omnibus legislation that authorizes
and social goals and effects in project planning and
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) civil works
establish cost-sharing and planning requirements for natural
activities and directs the agency’s practices as a Water
and nature-based features. For more on these topics, see
Resources Development Act (WRDA). WRDAs are
CRS In Focus IF10221, Principles, Requirements, and
distinguished from each other by referencing the year of
Guidelines (PR&G) for Federal Investments in Water
enactment (e.g., WRDA 1986). WRDA provisions
Resources, and CRS Report R46328, Flood Risk Reduction
generally add to or amend the pool of existing USACE
from Natural and Nature-Based Features: Army Corps of
authorizations and refine policy direction that Congress
Engineers Authorities.
provides to the agency. Other provisions may deauthorize
inactive unconstructed projects. Although the majority of
AWIA 2020 would expand USACE authorities to perform
USACE authorizations do not expire, some are time-
rural water supply projects and to address aquatic and
limited. WRDA provisions also may extend time-limited
terrestrial invasive species. It also would require an annual
USACE authorities. Most USACE water resource projects
report from the Administration to congressional authorizing
require two types of congressional authorization: one for
and appropriations committees that identifies USACE
studying feasibility and a subsequent one for construction.
authorized studies and projects available for appropriations.
Drivers for enactment of a new WRDA typically include
Title II and Title III of the bill would authorize water
nonfederal and congressional interest in new studies and
infrastructure and restoration activities of the U.S.
construction projects and support for adjustments to
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal
existing projects, programmatic authorities, and policies.
agencies, including tribal water infrastructure investments.
Since WRDA 1986, Congress often has considered WRDA
For more on AWIA 2020’s non-USACE provisions, see
legislation on a biennial cycle; however, the timing of
CRS Insight IN11437, Water Infrastructure Legislation in
enactment of WRDAs has varied. For more on WRDAs,
the 116th Congress: EPA, Reclamation, and U.S. Army
see box titled “WRDAs and WRDA Titles in Broader
Corps of Engineers Provisions.
Recent Developments
WRDAs and WRDA Titles in Broader Bills
In July 2020, the House Committee on Transportation and
Historical y, most Water Resources Development Act
Infrastructure (House T&I) reported H.R. 7575 (WRDA
provisions have focused on USACE’s water resource
2020). The Senate Committee on Environment and Public
activities, not the agency’s regulatory responsibilities (e.g.,
Works (Senate EPW) reported S. 3591, America’s Water
issuing permits under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act).
Infrastructure Act of 2020 (AWIA 2020), in May 2020.
An exception is WRDA 1992 (P.L. 102-580), which included a
AWIA 2020’s Title I and WRDA 2020 focus on
title on contaminated sediment and ocean dumping
authorizing USACE activities and alter USACE policy
authorizing both EPA and USACE activities. Since WRDA
direction provided by Congress. Both bills would authorize
1992, Congress general y has not used WRDAs to alter the
a suite of USACE studies and projects and would adjust the
scope of USACE’s regulatory authorities. Since 1992, WRDA
Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF) contribution for
provisions related to USACE’s regulatory program have
inland and intracoastal waterway construction projects from
primarily involved the processing of permit applications (e.g.,
50% to 35% to allow for more federal investment toward
authorizing USACE to accept funds to expedite processing).
these projects. The WRDA 2020 IWTF contribution
reduction would apply in FY2021 through FY2027. For
The most recent “stand-alone” WRDAs were enacted in
more on waterways, see CRS In Focus IF11593, Inland and
2000, 2007, and 2014. Although most titles of the Water
Intracoastal Waterways: Primer and Issues for Congress.
Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA
2014; P.L. 113-121) were USACE-focused, some titles
WRDA 2020 also would change the budget enforcement
addressed other agencies. WRDA 2016 (Title I of P.L. 114-
rules through a budget cap adjustment for the amount
322, Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act
provided to USACE from the Harbor Maintenance Trust
[WIIN Act]) and WRDA 2018 (Title I of P.L. 115-270,
America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 [AWIA 2018])
Fund (HMTF) for activities designated as harbor operations
and maintenance. WRDA 2020 also would allow for the
were enacted as USACE-focused titles in broader water bil s
HMTF to pay for a broader set of activities and alter the
with titles and provisions authorizing water programs and
distribution targets for HMTF-funded activities. WRDA
activities of multiple agencies and departments, such as EPA,
the Department of the Interior, and the Federal Energy
2020 would require USACE to update the agency’s
guidance on assessing sea level rise for coastal project
Regulatory Commission. For more on WRDAs, see CRS
planning. It also would require the agency to adopt
Report R45185, Army Corps of Engineers: Water Resource
procedures to include more consideration of environmental
Authorization and Project Delivery Processes.

Water Resources Development Acts: Primer
Congress and USACE Activities
to assist with municipal drinking water and wastewater
USACE’s civil works activities historically have focused on
infrastructure projects in designated communities, counties,
three primary purposes: improving navigation, reducing
and states. WRDA 2020 and AWIA 2020 would draw upon
flood risk, and restoring aquatic ecosystems. Many USACE
the Section 7001 reports as the basis for authorizing various
projects are multipurpose—that is, they may provide water
geographically specific USACE activities, including
supply storage, recreation, and hydropower, among other
environmental infrastructure assistance. For more on the
benefits, in addition to one or more of the three primary
Section 7001 process, see CRS Insight IN11118, Army
purposes. USACE is directly engaged in the planning and
Corps of Engineers: Section 7001 Annual Report on Future
construction of water resource projects. The majority of
Studies and Projects.
USACE appropriations (e.g., more than 80% of annual
FY2019 appropriations for USACE civil works) is directed
Nonfederal Responsibilities
toward performing work on specific studies and for
Current law requires nonfederal sponsors to share costs and
construction of USACE projects authorized by Congress.
assume other responsibilities for most USACE projects.
Nonfederal sponsors generally are required to provide the
In WRDAs, Congress establishes the broad structure for
land and other real estate interests needed for a project and
how USACE is to perform its work on water resource
to share study and construction costs. Most studies are cost-
projects (e.g., setting standard federal and nonfederal cost
shared 50% federal and 50% nonfederal. Congress has set
shares). Congress also provides the authorization for
the cost shares for construction and nonfederal
USACE to perform specific studies and projects. After
responsibilities following construction for the various
Congress has authorized the study or construction of a
USACE project purposes. For instance, Congress has set
project, however, USACE generally is unable to proceed
the cost sharing for construction for flood risk reduction
until it receives funding for that project phase. Congress
projects at a maximum of 65% federal and minimum of
provides appropriations for the agency through the annual
35% nonfederal; for ecosystem restoration, the cost sharing
Energy and Water Development appropriations process
is fixed at 65% federal and 35% nonfederal. For most
and, at times, through supplemental appropriations. For
USACE flood control and restoration projects, operations,
more on USACE funding, see CRS Report R46320, U.S.
maintenance, repair, and rehabilitation are 100% a
Army Corps of Engineers: Annual Appropriations Process
nonfederal responsibility.
and Issues for Congress.
Deliberations and Considerations
WRDA Development and Process to
Related to USACE
Propose Activities for Authorization
Although WRDAs often have received significant support
To develop recent WRDAs, the authorizing committees—
in both chambers, in the past some issues have complicated
the House T&I and Senate EPW—have held hearings to
deliberations and enactment. For example, Congress
obtain testimony from stakeholders and have reviewed
overcame a presidential veto to enact WRDA 2007. Various
reports transmitted by the Administration. The
topics may shape deliberations in 2020 and the future,
authorizations for most USACE studies and projects are
including the status and authorization of specific projects,
geographically specific (e.g., a flood risk reduction project
post-flood levee repair and study authorities, and effects of
for a specific community along a river or coast). Scrutiny of
bill provisions on discretionary spending and/or mandatory
congressionally directed spending that benefits a specific
receipts and spending. Numerous studies and projects
entity or locality (known as earmarking) has altered the
authorized for construction in previous WRDAs remain
development of WRDAs s ince WRDA 2007 (P.L. 110-
unfunded. Nonfederal sponsors often remain interested in
114). During the development of WRDAs over the last
pursuing these unfunded studies and construction activities.
decade, authorizing committees have been explicit
A challenge for policymakers is whether, and if so how, to
regarding their use of Administration reports and processes
advance these studies and construction activities.
as the basis for including geographically specific USACE
authorizations. For example, Congress has identified
WRRDA 2014, WRDA 2016, and WRDA 2018 expanded
favorable reports by the Chief of Engineers (Chief’s
the opportunities for interested nonfederal entities,
reports) and other USACE decision documents as the basis
including private entities, to have greater roles in project
for new project construction authorizations or modifications
development, construction, and financing. Although some
to existing construction authorizations.
of these authorities may expedite project progress, they also
have the potential to constrain federal discretion and
Congress established a new process to assist the
prioritization of USACE activities. The status of efforts
congressional authorizing committees in identifying
under these and other authorities that would allow for loans
USACE studies and projects to authorize in WRRDA 2014.
and loan guarantees for water resource projects is among
In Section 7001 of WRRDA 2014, Congress required the
the topics that may continue to shape deliberations on
Administration to transmit each February to the authorizing
USACE authorities. Additionally, Administration proposals
committees an annual report on publicly submitted USACE
and actions and court decisions may shape congressional
study and project proposals and USACE-developed project
direction to USACE.
decision documents that require congressional
authorization. In WRDA 2016 and WRDA 2018, Congress
Nicole T. Carter, Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
expanded the Section 7001 process to include modifications
Anna E. Normand, Analyst in Natural Resources Policy
to USACE environmental infrastructure assistance
authorities, which consist of authorities that allow USACE

Water Resources Development Acts: Primer

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