Senate committee approves bill to boost waterways

A reauthorization of federal waterways funding cleared its first hurdle on Wednesday when it was approved by a key Senate committee.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted unanimously to approve a new Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) for the first time in six years.

The measure (S. 601), authorizes federal investments in projects that have been identified by the Army Corps of Engineers as a boost to U.S. system of inland waterways, such as deepening ports and improving river quality. 

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The panel's chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), said the hailed the committee's approval of the WRDA bill as a critical first step for legislation that has been identified as a priority by transportation committee leaders in both chambers. 

"It's a great day for the American people, as WRDA is critical for flood control, port commerce, safe drinking water and wastewater infrastructure,"  Boxer, who is cosponsor of the Senate WRDA bill, said in a statement. 

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who is cosponsoring the water bill with Boxer, agreed.

"WRDA is one of the most important and impressive bipartisan bills to come out of our committee," Vitter said in a statement. "Our bill will implement real and necessary reforms to the Corps of Engineers to decrease project delivery time so that folks will be better protected from flooding and other projects can help jumpstart increased commerce."

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said this week that he was concerned the Senate's version of the WRDA gave too much power to pick projects that will receive funding to the Obama administration.

"[Sen. Boxer has] put something forward, but it gives more authority to the executive branch,” Shuster said in a speech to the Arlington, Va.-based Waterways Council (WCI) on Tuesday.

“If we do something similar that she has ... the Congress will once again give up it’s constitutional authority to the executive branch and we’ll never get it back," Shuster continued. “When I see myself and my colleagues standing on the House floor complaining about the EPA, Corp of Engineers, all these other agencies, we’ve given them the authority to do that.”

The Waterways Council itself praised the Senate committee's initial approval of the new WRDA bill.

"We thank Chairwoman Barbara Boxer and Ranking Member David Vitter for their collaborative efforts to develop a long-overdue WRDA bill that addresses the needs of the inland waterways system," WCI President Michael Toohey said. "We applaud the WRDA bill’s elements that address navigation project delivery reforms, streamlining of Inland Waterways Users Board appointments, and investments made in inland waterways projects across all geographic areas."

The last WRDA bill was similarly controversial. The measure was approved in 2007 after lawmakers overrode a veto from former President George W. Bush.