Updated January 5, 2021
Water Resources Development Act of 2020
Congress commonly titles omnibus legislation that
WRDA 2020 (§102) authorized HMTF expenditures to pay
authorizes U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) civil
for a broader set of activities. It also provided direction on
works activities as a Water Resources Development Act
the use of harbor operations and maintenance funds for
(WRDA). Since WRDA 1986, Congress often has
various categories of navigation projects (e.g., at least 13%
considered a WRDA biennially. Drivers for enactment
for the Great Lakes Navigation System, unless otherwise
typically include nonfederal and congressional interest in
directed in an appropriations act). For more on the HMTF,
new studies and construction projects and adjustments to
see CRS In Focus IF11645, Distribution of Harbor
existing projects, programmatic authorities, and policies.
Maintenance Trust Fund Expenditures.
Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act of
2020 (WRDA 2020) as Division AA of P.L. 116-260, an
For inland and intracoastal waterways, WRDA 2020 (§109)
omnibus appropriations and authorization act, signed by
adjusted the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF)
President Trump on December 27, 2020. The 116th
contribution to waterway construction projects to allow
Congress had considered other versions of a USACE
more federal investment toward these projects. It reduced
authorization bill. For example, the House passed S. 1811
the IWTF contribution from 50% to 35% for any waterway
in early December 2020 and H.R. 7575 in July 2020. The
construction project funded from FY2021 through FY2031.
Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
The change increased the contribution from the general
reported S. 3591 in May 2020.
fund from 50% to 65% for these projects. For more on
waterways, see CRS In Focus IF11593, Inland and
Like most previously enacted WRDAs, WRDA 2020 not
Intracoastal Waterways: Primer and Issues for Congress.
only authorized USACE studies and projects but also
refined congressional policy direction for USACE and
Policy Direction
adjusted existing USACE civil works authorities. In
How Congress directs USACE to plan and evaluate federal
addition to USACE-related provisions, a limited number of
water resource investments can affect what the USACE
WRDA 2020 provisions are associated primarily with other
Chief of Engineers recommends to Congress for
agencies (e.g., §§507, 508, 510).
construction. WRDA 2020 (§113) required USACE to
update the agency’s guidance on assessing sea level rise
Navigation Trust Funds
and inland flooding to reflect the best available peer-
Commercial shippers and barge operators contribute toward
reviewed science. WRDA 2020 (§110) also required
paying for navigation improvements through taxes that are
USACE to adopt procedures to include more consideration
deposited into two trust funds. Monies from the trust funds
of environmental and social goals and regional economic
are made available for eligible activities through
benefits during project planning and selection of the
appropriations legislation. WRDA 2020 altered various
preferred alternative. WRDA 2020 (§115) set nonfederal
aspects of the trust funds.
costs for natural and nature-based features at a maximum of
35%. For more on these topics, see CRS In Focus IF10221,
For coastal and inland harbors, WRDA 2020 (§101)
Principles, Requirements, and Guidelines (PR&G) for
changed the budget enforcement rules for two types of
Federal Investments in Water Resources, and CRS Report
discretionary spending through budget cap adjustments. In
R46328, Flood Risk Reduction from Natural and Nature-
the CARES Act (P.L. 116-136, §14003), Congress directed
Based Features: Army Corps of Engineers Authorities.
that funds from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund
(HMTF) for activities designated as harbor operations and
Study and Project Authorizations
maintenance in an amount up to the prior fiscal year’s
The broad cessation of congressionally directed spending
HMTF deposits would not count against annual
that benefits a specific entity or locality (known as
discretionary budget limits. WRDA 2020 altered the HMTF
earmarking) altered the development of USACE
adjustment to be the sum of (1) the amount of the deposits
authorization legislation. Enacted WRDAs since 2014 have
into the fund two years prior (which were $1.8 billion in
been explicit regarding their use of Administration reports
FY2019) and (2) an amount starting at $500 million in
and processes as the basis for including most
FY2021 and increasing by $100 million annually to $1.5
geographically specific USACE authorizations. WRDA
billion for FY2030 and thereafter. At the start of FY2021,
2020 (§401) authorized the construction of 46 water
the HMTF estimated balance was roughly $9.2 billion.
resource development projects identified in Chief of
WRDA 2020 also made an adjustment for funding for
Engineers’ reports completed since WRDA 2018. Among
certain additional measures at qualifying ports; the
these projects, several had federal costs greater than $400
adjustment applies for 10 years and expands from $50
million: three coastal storm damage reduction projects (two
million to $70 million annually.
in NY, one in VA); two navigation projects (both in TX);
and one ecosystem restoration project (IL). WRDA 2020

Water Resources Development Act of 2020
also authorized eight modifications to construction projects
appropriations. Numerous studies and projects authorized
(§401) and conditionally authorized six projects developed
for construction in previous legislation remain unfunded.
by nonfederal project sponsors (§403).
Nonfederal sponsors often remain interested in pursuing
these unfunded studies and construction activities. WRDA
WRDA 2020 authorized USACE to conduct feasibility
2020 (§222) includes a requirement for an annual report to
studies (§201) and modified four feasibility studies (§203).
identify authorized studies and projects that USACE could
It also directed USACE to expedite other authorized studies
carry out if funds were available. Given the demand for
(e.g., §202) and to conduct a coastal resilience study for the
USACE projects, a challenge for policymakers is whether,
Great Lakes (§211) and five river basin studies―Lower
and if so how, to advance authorized studies and
Mississippi River (§213), Upper Mississippi River (§214),
construction activities that remain unfunded or whether to
Lower Missouri River Basin (§216), Upper Missouri River
deauthorize the activities.
(§216), and Sacramento River (§209).
WRDA 2020 (§301) addressed the authorization of various
Programs for Economical y Distressed and Rural
types of projects in the backlog. The act
and Small Communities
 established a process for the deauthorization of
Some USACE projects in disadvantaged communities and
unconstructed projects with federal costs of at least $10
rural areas have been unable to meet the economic
justification criteria for USACE riverine and coastal flood
 deauthorized projects authorized prior to November 17,
risk reduction projects, and for some communities, the
1986, that had not been started or were unfunded for 10
required nonfederal contributions to the costs of USACE
years; and
studies and construction projects can be a barrier. WRDA
 required USACE to provide Congress with a post-
2020 (§118) established pilot programs for studying and
authorization change report that reflects updated
recommending riverine and coastal flood risk for
economic and environmental analyses before carrying
economically disadvantaged communities and rural
out a project that had not been initiated within 20 years
communities. WRDA 2020 (§165) authorized a pilot
of the project’s authorization.
program that allows USACE to conduct 10 projects with
federal costs of $10 million or less for small and
WRDA 2020 (§360) amended various existing authorities
disadvantaged communities.
related to USACE study and project deauthorization
Environmental Infrastructure
processes, including repealing many of the deauthorization
processes enacted in 2014, 2016, and 2018.
Since 1992, Congress has authorized and provided
appropriations for USACE environmental infrastructure
Processes for Identifying Studies and Projects
assistance (e.g., planning, design, and construction of
Adherence to earmark moratoriums has altered how
municipal drinking water and wastewater projects) in
Congress identifies activities for inclusion in a WRDA. In
designated communities, counties, and states. WRDA 2020
Section 7001 of P.L. 113-121 (33 U.S.C. §2282d),
(§352) amended 14 environmental infrastructure authorities
Congress established an annual process for identifying
to increase authorization of appropriations and, for some
proposals for USACE studies and projects that are related
authorities, to expand geographic scope and authorized
to the agency’s missions and authorities that require
activities (e.g., stormwater systems).
specific congressional authorization. Congress has used the
Invasive Species
annual Section 7001 reports to identify activities for
authorization in WRDAs.
Invasive species can impact water resource projects by
outcompeting native species, clogging water pipes, and
USACE’s civil works activities historically have focused on
affecting water quality and recreation. WRDA 2020 altered
three primary purposes: improving navigation, reducing
and expanded invasive species efforts by USACE and other
flood risk, and restoring aquatic ecosystems. Many USACE
agencies. It directed periodic updates to USACE’s Invasive
projects are multipurpose—that is, they may provide water
Species Policy (§501) and amended USACE’s invasive
supply storage, recreation, and hydropower, among other
species research authority (§502). WRDA 2020 authorized
benefits, in addition to one or more of the three primary
the Brandon Road Project, designed to prevent invasive
purposes. WRDA 2020 (§127) directs that the Section 7001
species transfer between the Mississippi River and Great
reports are to include proposals submitted for projects with
Lakes basins (§401). It also authorized federal-state actions
municipal or agricultural water supply purposes that are
for the control or eradication of invasive species in certain
consistent with the agency’s mission and authorities.
river basins (§§504, 505, 506) and invasive species pilot
programs (§§503, 505, 507, 508, 509, 510).
WRDA Implementation and Oversight
Backlog of Authorized Projects
Congress establishes the broad structure for how USACE is
to perform its water resource activities. After enactment of
USACE has an estimated $98 billion backlog of authorized
a WRDA, USACE often develops guidance that describes
unconstructed water resources projects. After Congress
how the agency plans to implement various provisions, and
authorizes the study or construction of a project, USACE
Congress often engages in oversight.
generally is unable to proceed until it receives funding for
that project. Congress provides appropriations for the
agency through the annual Energy and Water Development
Nicole T. Carter, Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
appropriations process and, at times, through supplemental
Anna E. Normand, Analyst in Natural Resources Policy

Water Resources Development Act of 2020


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