Washington Waves
Washington Waves

Washington Waves: September 17, 2018

Washington, D.C.—The Senate easily approved the first “minibus” appropriations conference report for fiscal year 2019 that provides $6.8 billion for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civil works, which one leading Democrat described as “the highest-ever level of funding” for that program.

That funding supports $1.5 billion from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund—exceeding the spending targets in the 2014 Water Resources And Reform Development Act for the fifth year in a row—and full use of the estimated receipts for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, both of which were singled out as top goals for some members of Congress

Six study starts and five new construction projects were covered by the conference report.

Another provision continues the prohibition on the Corps from requiring Clean Water Act permits for exempt agriculture activities.

Approved by a vote of 92 to 5, the conference report headed to the House floor, where it was expected to be taken up before the end of the week and sent on to President Donald Trump for his signature.

Trump looks forward to signing the legislation, the White House stated.

H.R. 5895 also includes funding for military construction, veterans affairs, energy programs and the legislative branch.

Several contentious provisions in the earlier House version including one on repealing the Obama-era Waters of the United States rule did not make into the conference report.

Water Resources Bill

Key House and Senate committees reached an agreement on a much-anticipated water resources bill, the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, which authorizes U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civil works activities for inland waterways, ports and other infrastructure projects across the nation.

They used their announcement to promote provisions on boosting local stakeholder input and expanding transparency for more Corps projects, approving deauthorizations totaling billions of dollars and maintaining competitiveness for coastal and inland ports.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the agreement grew out of a pre-conference effort with the House made necessary by a senator’s hold on the bill that came out of the Senate committee months ago.

It authorizes the Chief’s Reports received since the last water resources development law was passed in 2016, eliminates barriers that delay projects, allows the Corps to accept funds from non-federal sponsors to advance studies and project elements, and requires the Corps to engage directly with stakeholders on implementation guidance.

According to one schedule, the bill is expected to be taken up by the House as part of its suspension calendar, which is reserved for noncontroversial measures, with action in the Senate to follow.

Reorganization Setbacks

A proposal to split up the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and move it out of the Department of Defense (DoD) suffered several major setbacks.

Language in the minibus appropriations conference report bars the use of federal funds to implement such action, and a section in the America’s Water Infrastructure Act directs the Corps to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the agency’s structure and come up recommendations to improve it, which appears to be a watered-down approach to what supporters of such a move initially wanted.

Even before those legislative hits, a key Corps official spelled out specific concerns to a House panel.

“We do not think it would be wise to separate water management responsibilities on any basin between two federal agencies,” said Maj. Gen. Scott Spellmon, deputy commanding general for Civil and Emergency Operations, citing project purposes that Congress has asked the Corps to achieve. “Those decisions ought to remain in one agency.”

Spellmon also raised the potential loss of the thousands of civil works employees and the impact that would have on the DoD.

“They do much more than just civil works,” he said, pointing to projects such as modernizing the Mosul Dam in Iraq and work on the power system in Afghanistan.

Spellmon said guidance from the office of Defense Secretary James Mattis referenced such work.

Spellmon indicated those working on the proposal have other duties, perhaps the most compelling reason not to expect much movement on that idea.

“We are in the very early stages of outlining all of this to our leadership, and we have more work to do,” he said.

“I would say it is the same people, the same staff that’s trying to deliver on this record supplemental and program that Congress has trusted us with that would be doing this particular planning.”

Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment and a vocal supporter of moving the Corps out of DoD, conceded that lawmakers will want to hear about the plans for the supplemental funding.

Altering Projects

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers posted Engineer Circular 1165-2-220 on changes to processing requests to alter civil works projects under Section 408.

Effective September 10, the changes include delegating all decisions from headquarters and authorizing district commanders to delegate decisions further, designating a lead district for projects that cross multiple districts or states, limiting the type of activities that require Section 408, clarifying the applicability of the process to activities in navigable waters, requiring one decision transmitted to requesters for cases that require both a Section 408 and a Corps regulatory decision, and eliminating the 60-percent minimum design requirement so information can be scaled to the scope of the request.

Along with improvements to the Section 408 process, the Corps is testing a database for tracking Section 408 requests, which will include a public interface to provide the status of requests.