Water Resources Development Acts: Primer

Updated September 22, 2020
Water Resources Development Acts: Primer
Congress often titles omnibus legislation that authorizes
procedures to include more consideration of environmental
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) civil works
and social goals and effects in project planning and
activities as a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).
establish cost-sharing and planning requirements for natural
WRDAs are distinguished from each other by referencing
and nature-based features. For more on these topics, see
the year of enactment (e.g., WRDA 1986). WRDA
CRS In Focus IF10221, Principles, Requirements, and
provisions generally add to or amend the pool of existing
Guidelines (PR&G) for Federal Investments in Water
USACE authorizations and refine congressional policy
Resources, and CRS Report R46328, Flood Risk Reduction
direction to the agency. Other provisions may deauthorize
from Natural and Nature-Based Features: Army Corps of
inactive unconstructed projects. Although most USACE
Engineers Authorities.
authorizations do not expire, some are time-limited. WRDA
provisions may extend these time-limited authorities. Most
AWIA 2020 would expand USACE authorities to perform
USACE water resource projects require two types of
rural water supply projects and to address aquatic and
congressional authorization: one for studying feasibility and
terrestrial invasive species. It also would require an annual
a subsequent one for construction. Drivers for enactment of
report from the Administration to congressional authorizing
a new WRDA typically include nonfederal and
and appropriations committees that identifies USACE
congressional interest in new studies and construction
authorized studies and projects available for appropriations.
projects and support for adjustments to existing projects,
Title II and Title III of the bill would authorize water
programmatic authorities, and policies. Since WRDA 1986,
infrastructure and restoration activities of the U.S.
Congress often has considered WRDA legislation on a
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal
biennial cycle; however, the timing of enactment of
agencies, including tribal water infrastructure investments.
WRDAs has varied. For more on WRDAs, see box titled
For more on AWIA 2020’s non-USACE provisions, see
“WRDAs and WRDA Titles in Broader Bills.”
CRS Insight IN11437, Water Infrastructure Legislation in
the 116th Congress: EPA, Reclamation, and U.S. Army

Recent Developments
Corps of Engineers Provisions.
In July 2020, the House passed H.R. 7575 (WRDA 2020);
it was considered under suspension of the rules . The Senate
Committee on Environment and Public Works (Senate
WRDAs and WRDA Titles in Broader Bills
EPW) reported S. 3591, America’s Water Infrastructure Act
Historical y, most Water Resources Development Act
of 2020 (AWIA 2020), in May 2020. AWIA 2020’s Title I
provisions have focused on USACE’s water resource
and WRDA 2020 focus on authorizing USACE activities
activities, not the agency’s regulatory responsibilities (e.g.,
and alter USACE policy direction provided by Congress.
issuing permits under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act).
Both bills would authorize a suite of USACE studies and
An exception is WRDA 1992 (P.L. 102-580), which included a
projects and would adjust the Inland Waterways Trust Fund
title on contaminated sediment and ocean dumping
(IWTF) contribution for inland and intracoastal waterway
authorizing both EPA and USACE activities. Since 1992,
construction projects from 50% to 35% to allow for more
Congress general y has not used WRDAs to alter the scope
federal investment toward these projects. The WRDA 2020
of USACE’s regulatory authorities. Since 1992, WRDA
IWTF contribution reduction would apply in FY2021
provisions related to USACE’s regulatory program have
through FY2027. For more on waterways, see CRS In
primarily involved the processing of permit applications (e.g.,
Focus IF11593, Inland and Intracoastal Waterways:
authorizing USACE to accept funds to expedite processing).
Primer and Issues for Congress.
The most recent “stand-alone” USACE authorization bil s
WRDA 2020 also would change the budget enforcement
were enacted in 2000, 2007, and 2014. Although most titles of
the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014
rules through a budget cap adjustment for the
appropriations provided to USACE from the Harbor
(WRRDA 2014; P.L. 113-121) were USACE-focused, some
Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) for activities designated
titles addressed other agencies. WRDA 2016 (Title I of P.L.
as harbor operations and maintenance. WRDA 2020 also
114-322, Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation
Act [WIIN Act]) and WRDA 2018 (Title I of P.L. 115-270,
would allow for the HMTF to pay for a broader set of
activities and alter the distribution of HMTF funds across
America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 [AWIA 2018])
various categories of eligible activities. (For more
were enacted as USACE-focused titles in broader water bil s
information on the HMTF, see CRS Report R41042,
with titles and provisions authorizing water programs and
activities of multiple agencies and departments, such as EPA,
Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Expenditures.) WRDA
2020 would require USACE to update the agency’s
the Department of the Interior, and the Federal Energy
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
Authorization and Project Delivery Processes

Water Resources Development Acts: Primer
Congress and USACE Activities
allow USACE to assist with municipal drinking water and
USACE’s civil works activities historically have focused on
wastewater infrastructure projects in designated
three primary purposes: improving navigation, reducing
communities, counties, and states. WRDA 2020 and AWIA
flood risk, and restoring aquatic ecosystems. Many USACE
2020 would draw upon the Section 7001 reports as the basis
projects are multipurpose—that is, they may provide water
for authorizing various geographically specific USACE
supply storage, recreation, and hydropower, among other
activities, including environmental infrastructure assistance.
benefits, in addition to one or more of the three primary
For more on the Section 7001 process, see CRS Insight
purposes. USACE is directly engaged in the planning and
IN11118, Army Corps of Engineers: Section 7001 Annual
construction of water resource projects. The majority of
Report on Future Studies and Projects.
USACE appropriations (e.g., more than 85% of annual
FY2020 appropriations for USACE civil works) is directed
Nonfederal Responsibilities
toward performing work on USACE studies and projects
Current law requires nonfederal sponsors to share costs and
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 the 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, H.R. 7575, and S. 3591, the
in both chambers, in the past some issues have complicated
authorizing committees—the House Committee on
deliberations and enactment. For example, Congress
Transportation and Infrastructure and the Senate EPW—
overcame a presidential veto to enact WRDA 2007. Various
held hearings to obtain testimony from stakeholders and
topics may shape deliberations in 2020 and the future,
reviewed reports transmitted by the Administration. The
including the status and authorization of specific projects,
authorizations for most USACE studies and projects are
post-flood levee repair and study authorities, and effects of
geographically specific (e.g., a flood risk reduction project
bill provisions on discretionary spending and/or mandatory
for a specific community along a river or coast). Scrutiny of
receipts. Numerous studies and projects authorized for
congressionally directed spending that benefits a specific
construction in previous WRDAs remain unfunded.
entity or locality (known as earmarking) has altered the
Nonfederal sponsors often remain interested in pursuing
development of USACE authorization legislation since
these unfunded studies and construction activities. A
WRDA 2007 (P.L. 110-114). During the development of
challenge for policymakers is whether, and if so how, to
such legislation over the last decade, authorizing
advance these studies and construction activities.
committees have been explicit regarding their use of
Administration reports and processes as the basis for
WRRDA 2014, WRDA 2016, and WRDA 2018 expanded
including most geographically specific USACE
the opportunities for interested nonfederal entities,
authorizations. For example, Congress has identified
including private entities, to have greater roles in USACE
favorable reports by the Chief of Engineers (Chief’s
project development, construction, and financing. Although
reports) and other USACE decision documents as the basis
some of these authorities may expedite project progress,
for new project construction authorizations.
they also have the potential to constrain federal discretion
and prioritization of USACE activities. The status of efforts
In WRRDA 2014, Congress established a new process to
under these and other authorities that would allow for loans
assist the congressional authorizing committees in
and loan guarantees for water resource projects is among
identifying USACE studies and projects to authorize. In
the topics that may continue to shape deliberations on
Section 7001, Congress required the Administration to
USACE authorities. Additionally, Administration proposals
transmit each February to the authorizing committees an
and actions and court decisions may shape congressional
annual report on publicly submitted USACE study and
direction to USACE.
project proposals and USACE-developed project decision
documents that require congressional authorization. In
Nicole T. Carter, Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
WRDA 2016 and WRDA 2018, Congress expanded the
Anna E. Normand, Analyst in Natural Resources Policy
Section 7001 process to include modifications to USACE
environmental infrastructure assistance authorities, which

Water Resources Development Acts: Primer

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