Congress Calls for Beneficial Use Projects But Has Yet to Authorize Funding
On October 23, 2018, President Trump signed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2018 into law. The legislation passed both the House and Senate in overwhelming bipartisan fashion. It continues progress made on addressing project delivery efficiency and making it easier for non-federal partners to take on project responsibilities (and funding).
The bill also looks to advance the beneficial use of dredged material, supporting new projects and the beneficial use of sediment for storm damage reduction projects, and coastal and inland harbor maintenance. Section 1148 of WRDA 2018 allows the Corps to grant a temporary easement for a project that involves beneficial use for a storm damage reduction project, under the authority of Section 204 of WRDA 1992.
Sec. 1216 advises the Corps to include opportunities for the potential beneficial use of dredged materials at our coastal and inland harbors.
And finally, WRDA 2018 expands a pilot study for beneficial use projects, which began in WRDA 2016, Sec. 1122. WRDA 2016 authorized 10 beneficial use projects, which were recently announced after an eleven-month process to decide between 95 proposals. For more on the Sec. 1122 beneficial use projects from WRDA 2016, see the story in this issue on page 14.
WRDA 2018, Sec. 1130 amends WRDA 2016, Sec. 1122 to increase the number of projects from 10 to 20, providing more opportunity for unique beneficial use projects. Using dredged sediment beneficially is a focus in many areas where placement sites are full or dwindling. In some cases, beneficial use has spurred partnerships between the dredging industry and commercial soil production, where profits can be made from dredged sediment. Beneficial use has also been instrumental in helping to rebuild marshland, especially in places like Louisiana where it is disappearing at an alarming rate. In many of these same areas, marshland serves as an important part of the coastal storm protection system. Congress and the Corps, as evidence by WRDA 2016 and WRDA 2018, recognize these benefits and the potential of beneficial use. Part of WRDA 2016, Sec. 1122 authorize the Corps to overlook standards that demand it chooses the least costly alternative. In the long term, it can save money on storm damage and disposal costs.
But there’s just one problem: in the short term, beneficial use projects generally cost more than more traditional dredging and placement. Congress can champion beneficial use. It can pass legislation to support the development of more projects, but if it can’t also fund those efforts, then isn’t that just more time and money wasted?
Nearly two years after WRDA 2016 called for the beneficial use pilot projects, and after WRDA 2018 expanded the program, the Corps began the process of selecting proposals for the first round of 10 projects, and it did so methodically and by the letter of the law. The pilot project list was originally scheduled for release in June 2019 and was postponed until early this year, in part because the Corps was overwhelmed with the response to the program. And also, Congress has not authorized any funding for these projects. The 10 projects chosen for the original pilot program, which has an estimated $50 million price tag, have not received funding and are now in line to receive funding through the Continuing Authorities Program (CAP), which authorizes beneficial use projects through Section 2014 of WRDA 1992. So in essence, the bill did little to advance any beneficial use project construction, it just identified more to put in line for funding. And isn’t putting all the time and effort into evaluating 95 different projects for a special program a waste of time and resources, if we shelve those projects in the end? It is the result of a fragmented system, which in some respects the WRDA bills are attempting to remedy. But all the new legislation in the world will never fix a shortfall in funding.
WRDA 2018 does make efforts to streamline the project permitting and construction process, which should save money in the long run. The legislation also makes efforts to put more of the onus on local non-federal sponsors to pick up project responsibilities and the bill. They may help, but funding for water resource projects will still fall far short of infrastructure needs.
Efforts aimed at involving non-federal sponsors will help relieve some of the Corps’ workload, time and resources, but that process has been slow to adopt.
Where WRDA 2018 falls short is in addressing the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF), which woefully underfunds infrastructure projects as it was intended. Despite efforts to increase the percentage of those funds for their intended use (for ports and harbors) little progress has been made. It seems that little progress will be made on our infrastructure needs without those funds because everywhere you turn there are authorized projects waiting for funding, which could be met at least in part by the HMTF.