House water bill: Don’t weaken environmental reviews

The bad news is that means Congress is back to pushing anti-environmental legislation.

The House, in particular, has been a hot-bed of bills, riders and amendments aimed at riding roughshod over our environmental safeguards and de-fanging the federal watchdogs that are charged with protecting our health and our communities, our air, water and public lands from polluters.

The latest assault on our system of proven safeguards comes this week with consideration by the full House of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, the bill that authorizes the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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A popular, pork-laden piece of legislation, WRRDA unfortunately contains provisions squarely aimed at undermining one of our most important and well-tested environmental laws, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

For more than 40 years, NEPA has allowed the United States to grow its economy and add millions of jobs while also protecting our air and water from the devastating pollution that affected many parts of the country in the 1950s and 1960s, and today affects new fast-growing economies like China.

Passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority and signed into law by President Nixon, NEPA has empowered the public, including citizens, local officials, landowners, industry, and taxpayers, and demanded government accountability. It has become a model for other countries.

But now the House bill, H.R. 3080, approved unanimously by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, would shorten the time for the public, states and local governments to learn about and comment on big federal projects that could have a major impact on their lives and communities. Sponsors of the provision falsely claim that NEPA is a major cause of delays in the construction of much-need water projects.

Yet a look at the facts shows that blaming long delays for water projects on NEPA is like a football team blaming their loss on the referees when the real problem is they can’t run, they can’t pass and they can’t defend. The fact is, the reason the Corps has $60 billion in projects ready for funding is that it only gets an annual construction appropriation of about $1.5 billion. The much-lauded (by the GOP) Paul Ryan budget would cut this spending even further.

If this bill passes, there will be about $1.5 billion spent on water projects. If the bill fails, there will be about $1.5 billion spent on water projects. NEPA has nothing to do with it.
Under NEPA, when the federal government undertakes or authorizes a major project such as constructing a dam, it must ensure that the project's impacts – environmental and otherwise – are considered and disclosed to the public. And because informed public engagement often produces ideas, information, and solutions that the government might otherwise overlook, NEPA leads to better decisions – and better outcomes – for everyone.

The NEPA process has saved money, time, lives, historical sites, endangered species, and public lands while encouraging compromise and cultivating better projects with more public support. Our website http://www.nrdc.org/legislation/nepa-success-stories.asp highlights a few of the NEPA success stories that prove this point.

Crippling NEPA as the House bill intends will inevitably lead to approval of more questionable projects, which will then line up for the meager funding in the present anti-infrastructure budget. Worse, it will embolden the ongoing stealth attack on NEPA (opponents have failed to repeal it directly) whereby they tuck anti-NEPA provisions into other major bills.

Over 100 groups have signed on a letter to the House urging members to protect NEPA by opposing the steamrolling provisions in the bill. Members of both parties should stand up against those who want to cut out the public's ability to meaningfully participate in projects that will affect their community.
 
Slesinger is the legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists.