After six months of negotiations, the House–Senate conference report dubbed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act has surfaced.
It would authorize new Army Corps of Engineers projects having to do with inland waterways, locks and dams, harbors, beaches, and related matters. At 186 pages of legislative text, there is plenty of room for reforms. Whether it properly addresses crucial reforms to the Corps (or lets missteps overshadow any attempts at reform) is another matter:
- Reduce the Corps’s project backlog—aggressively. This massive backlog prevents the Corps from effectively prioritizing projects. The conference report would establish a process for deauthorizing $18 billion in projects in a way that would offset the cost of new authorizations. Even if the Congressional Budget Office gives the report an estimated $12 billion cost (close to the Senate bill’s cost), the deauthorizations would amount to $6 billion on net, or just 10 percent of the conservative backlog estimate of $60 billion.
- Address cross-subsidies, set priorities in port and harbor maintenance spending. The final bill did not make Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) spending mandatory, and its HMTF spending increases are more targets than requirements, relying on overall increases in the Corps’s civil works program budget. Yet the bill is more concerned with spending money than it is considering structural reforms, such as shifting to a user fee model that accurately reflects the cost of port maintenance, prioritizing maintenance, and introducing market incentives to help eliminate cross subsidies between high revenue-generating, low maintenance ports and revenue-consuming, high maintenance ports.
- Limit new authorizations and set criteria. It remains to be seen whether the new process for authorizing projects set up in this bill will result in unforeseen problems. But the bill avoids earmarks and maintains congressional oversight over projects. The transparency in listing the 34 newly authorized projects is also welcome. Yet conferees should have set up criteria that would limit these and future project authorizations to those of national importance, thereby refocusing the Corps’s mission.
- Lower federal cost-share burden to save taxpayer dollars. The bill does allow non-federal entities to pursue projects with their own funding in certain cases. Yet it also hikes the federal cost-share for the massively over budget $3 billion Olmsted Lock and Dam project in Kentucky to 85 percent, up from 75 percent in the House-passed bill and the original 50 percent. Doing so only encourages cost-overruns and forces federal taxpayers to shoulder the risk.
- Benefit-cost analysis. Current benefit-cost analysis (BCA) at the Corps often overstates benefits and understates the costs of projects. The bill does not fix this problem. Congress should have included this crucial reform and also strengthened the BCA analysis to ensure that parochial projects do not make the cut.
- Beach nourishment and recreation areas. At taxpayer expense, the Corps literally pumps offshore sand and sediment on to the shores of beaches, a process called “beach nourishment.” The life of these projects already stands at 50 years, with some nearing that limit. There has been ample time to figure out how to make this a local responsibility, yet the bill fails to find ways to wind it down. It also fails to begin phasing out the Corps’s role in overseeing over 4,200 recreation areas.
The conference report makes small progress by encouraging more efficient project study and approval at the Corps and more involvement by the private sector and non-federal entities. However, it fails to address the root problems of poor prioritization, outdated analysis, and a sprawling mission, which plague the Corps.