Water infrastructure bill could hit Senate floor in April

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which Boxer chairs, will mark up the bill Wednesday.

The groups gunning for infrastructure upgrades see WRDA as a primary vehicle for such improvements, which they say are necessary to withstand extreme weather events linked to climate change.

Those groups are concerned that the congressional battle regarding billions of dollars of relief for Hurricane Sandy is bound for a repeat. They argue making investments now could shield the government and natural disaster victims from debates on federal spending.

They also say the federal tab for damages will grow as climate change threatens to intensify storms.

While climate scientists are wary of connecting individual events to climate change, they generally agree its effects — such as warmer waters and higher sea levels — exacerbate storms.

The frequency and costs of those storms are partly why a new “extreme weather” section worked its way into the WRDA draft released by Boxer and Environment and Public Works ranking member Sen. David Vitter (R-La.).

That portion of the draft makes no mention of climate change, which Boxer alluded to as a politically divisive issue that would rankle Republicans.

Instead, that segment instructs the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study “relating to options for reducing risk to human life and property from extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, coastal storms, and inland flooding.”

Boxer emphasized the flood-planning measures implemented by Army Corps already prevent $37 billion of damages annually. The WRDA draft authorizes $250 million each year for such flood restoration and hurricane and storm damage reduction projects.

The senators were bullish on the bill’s prospects, noting it could gain approval from GOP senators because it doesn’t increase WRDA’s authorization.

“I think we meet every reasonable argument from the conservative side,” Vitter said.

They stressed changes such as capping the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permitting process at three years and creating new ways for local governments to finance infrastructure projects.

The shorter permitting times, however, generated some dissatisfaction from the National Wildlife Federation.

The green group sent a memo Saturday that said the WRDA draft “contains language that will make it more difficult for communities and federal and state resource agencies to identify risks and to protest projects that will increase their flooding risks, damage the economy, or deprive the nation of clean water.”