Water Resources Development Act of 2016: Army Corps of Engineers Provisions in H.R. 5303 and S. 2848

Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) provisions typically relate directly to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) or more broadly to water resource infrastructure, such as dams and levees.

  • The House version of WRDA 2016 (H.R. 5303) continues the traditional focus on the Corps. The House passed H.R. 5303 on September 28, 2016.
  • The Senate version (S. 2848) is an omnibus water bill that addresses a variety of water issues and the activities of multiple departments and agencies. The Senate passed S. 2848 on September 15, 2016.

For a brief description of the two bills, including their non-Corps provisions, see CRS Insight IN10579, Water Resources Development Act of 2016: H.R. 5303 and S. 2848.

A Corps Primer

The Corps is the lead federal agency responsible for navigation improvements for authorized harbor and waterway projects and for coastal and riverine flood risk reduction infrastructure. The Corps also is actively engaged in aquatic ecosystem restoration, environmental protection, and stewardship efforts.

A WRDA is the typical legislative vehicle to update Corps policies and authorizations. WRDAs are not reauthorization bills. Congress historically has used WRDAs to authorize new Corps studies, projects, and modifications to ongoing projects. Congress generally authorizes a Corps activity before it is considered for federal funding through subsequent annual Energy and Water Development appropriations acts. If recent rates of funding and authorization are maintained, demand for Corps projects and maintenance activities will continue to exceed what the agency can deliver with annual appropriations.

The 113th Congress enacted the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA 2014; P.L. 113-121). Prior to WRRDA 2014, the most recently enacted Corps authorization bills were WRDA 2007 (P.L. 110-114) and WRDA 2000 (P.L. 106-541).

Selected Corps Provisions in WRDA 2016

Project-Specific Authorizations. Both S. 2848 and H.R. 5303 would authorize new Corps construction projects and modifications to ongoing projects. S. 2848 would authorize 29 new construction projects at a federal cost of $8.4 billion. Each of these project authorizations is based on a completed report by the Corps' Chief of Engineers (known as a Chief's Report). H.R. 5303 would authorize 30 new construction projects at a federal cost of $8.7 billion. Concerns over authorization earmarks for construction projects largely have been overcome by relying on Chief's Reports as the basis for congressional authorization.

Navigation. Section 108 of H.R. 5303 as reported by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would have provided that the balance of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (estimated to be more than $9 billion in FY2017) be made available for harbor maintenance in FY2027 without further appropriation. H.R. 5303 as passed by the House does not include a similar provision.

Regarding navigation construction, Section 2011 of S. 2848 would reduce the nonfederal construction cost-share for harbor deepening activities that occur between 45 feet and 50 feet. The Congressional Budget Office found the provision would increase the federal share by $430 million over the FY2017-FY2026 period.

Ecosystem Restoration and Coastal Provisions. Title IV of S. 2848 would adjust several Corps-related watershed, coastal, and regional multipurpose and ecosystem restoration efforts. Multiple provisions of S. 2848 would require the consideration of sea-level rise effects on Corps activities (e.g., ยงยง1017, 2017, 4013, and 4015). Section 4013 also would require the Secretary of the Army to convene an interagency working group on resilience to extreme weather and sea-level rise and related federal investments. Section 147 of H.R. 5303 would require the Corps to conduct a comprehensive study of flood risks for vulnerable coastal populations in the Corps' South Atlantic Division (which includes southeastern states and U.S. territories in the Caribbean). Section 186 of H.R. 5303 would require the Corps to develop a structural health monitoring program (that includes the identification of risks associated with sea-level rise) for the condition of infrastructure operated and maintained by the Corps.

Section 1015 of S. 2848 would establish that nonfederal operation and maintenance responsibilities for ecosystem restoration projects cease 10 years after the Secretary determines the restoration project is a success. Section 114 of H.R. 5303 would release nonfederal sponsors of their restoration operation and maintenance responsibilities after 50 years or once the ecosystem's natural hydrologic and ecologic function has returned.

Reservoir Operations. Drought conditions and local water supply constraints have prompted nonfederal interest in updating the operations of multipurpose reservoirs to expand opportunities for water supply. Section 1048 of S. 2848 would authorize the Secretary to review and update the federal flood control operation guidelines for certain nonfederal dams. Section 1012 of S. 2848 would authorize the Secretary to review and approve proposals to increase the quantity of water available from federal water resources projects. Section 111 of H.R. 5303 would authorize the Secretary to evaluate and carry out conservation measures at its projects in states with recent drought emergencies.

Studies and Environmental Infrastructure. Section 7001 of WRRDA 2014 established a process for the Administration to annually solicit and review public proposals for new Corps studies, construction projects, and project modifications. Congress has received two Section 7001 reports from the Administration containing proposals that meet the congressionally established criteria for inclusion. Both S. 2848 and H.R. 5303 would authorize some of the activities identified in the Section 7001 reports for 2015 and 2016.

Section 131 of H.R. 5303 would authorize submission of environmental infrastructure assistance proposals (which are typically for municipal water and wastewater infrastructure) in future Section 7001 solicitations.

Deauthorizations. WRRDA 2014 resulted in $14.3 billion in deauthorizations of unconstructed projects or project elements. In S. 2848, Sections 2001 and 1047 would adjust the existing deauthorization processes. Section 301 of H.R. 5303 would require that the Secretary identify an additional $10 billion in construction activities to deauthorize.

Tribal Consultation. Section 185 of H.R. 5303 would require the Corps to review its tribal consultation policies for permits and projects and to report back to Congress in one year. Corps tribal consultation practices have received attention recently as part of the controversy related to the Dakota Access Pipeline.