Beveridge & Diamond
 

President Obama Signs the Water Resources Reform and Development Act into Law, the First Water Funding Legislation Since 2007

Beveridge & Diamond, P.C., June 10, 2014

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On June 10, President Obama signed into law the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (“WRRDA”), the first water funding legislation in seven years. In a rare showing of congressional bipartisanship, the WRRDA passed both the House (414-4) and the Senate (91-7) with nearly unanimous votes, sending a clear message that ports and coastal developments are key elements of our nation’s infrastructure.

The WRRDA paves the way for projects (federal, state, and local) to maintain America’s ports, levees, dams, and harbors by authorizing $12.3 billion for such projects and removing many of the bureaucratic barriers and “red tape” that have developed over time. It also saves funds by deauthorizing roughly $18 billion in projects previously authorized by WRRDA’s predecessor, the Water Resources Development Act of 2007.

The WRRDA seeks to achieve these goals in several ways. First, it expedites project permitting and approvals of project modifications by reducing the number of studies to be completed by the Army Corps of Engineers and limiting its feasibility studies to three years with a maximum cost of $3 million per study. In the past, feasibility studies have taken around 15 years to complete with costs surpassing the $3 million cap. In addition to limiting the number and duration of feasibility studies, the WRRDA also allows the Corps, for the first time, to conduct immediate assessments of watersheds after storm events.

Second, WRRDA creates a system for prioritizing projects and feasibility studies. For example, projects involving storm damage risk reductions or ecosystem restoration that address imminent threats to life and property or identified threats to public health, safety, or welfare are given priority. Furthermore, the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is established to fund projects concerning the operation and maintenance of harbors or ports. The Trust Fund provides resources to emerging, moderate-use, and high-use harbor and ports in equitable apportionments as feasibly possible. This equitable apportionment ensures that all of America’s approximately 360 harbors and ports are considered in financing projects. By 2025, it is hoped that the Trust Fund provides 100 percent of its resources solely to the operation and maintenance of harbors and ports.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, Subtitle C of WRRDA includes the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act of 2014 (“WIFIA”). Modeled after the very successful Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, the WIFIA provides for the public sponsorship of private entities to develop projects that reduce flood damage, restore aquatic ecosystems, and improve inland and intracoastal waterway navigation systems. WIFIA speeds up federal funding to non-federal entities (to the tune of approximately $175 million) where there is a local source of funding to reimburse the federal government. Criticism has been focused on the public-private cooperation contemplated by WIFIA as some believe that this partnership essentially subsidizes privatization of the waterways, which could cause rate hikes and other operational concerns.

With enlargement of the Panama Canal expected to be completed in 2015, the importation of goods to the U.S. is expected to quadruple by 2030. Approximately $1.4 trillion worth of goods move through American ports each year, and over 30 million jobs rely on international trade. The current state of American maritime infrastructure is not nearly prepared for that growth and development, as some facilities, like Boston Harbor, are not deep enough even to allow for such larger ships. The WRRDA signals the government’s recognition that modernizing our ports, harbors, and waterways is essential to competing in the global economy.  

Beveridge & Diamond is actively engaged in many of the priorities set forth in the WRRDA, including permit streamlining, adaptation and resiliency planning, and transportation infrastructure development.  For further information on port and water resources development issues, please contact Fred Wagner at fwagner@bdlaw.com or (202) 789-6041, Brian Levey at blevey@bdlaw.com or (781) 416-5733 or Nico VanAelstyn at nvanaelstyn@bdlaw.com or (415) 262-4008.

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