Congress’ Chance for Holiday Redemption

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By Sean Cosgrove, Conservation Law Foundation, SCosgrove [at]

The 113th Congress can honestly be considered the “Real Do Nothing Congress.” To date their most significant act has been to shut down the federal government and narrowly avoid a default on the Nation’s debt. With that as a record there’s no place to go but up. Right now, however, the US Congress has three specific opportunities to close out the year and possibly retrieve some manner of holiday redemption in the form of genuine ocean achievements.

The Senate and the House of Representatives have both passed separate versions of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) and the bill is now in the conference committee. The WRDA bill authorizes the US Army Corps of Engineers to build and otherwise carry out water resources projects and allows the expenditure of considerable amounts of taxpayer dollars to do so.

Without a doubt, the typical WRDA bill draws a lot of fans in the Congress because of the expensive (and generally worthy) federal projects on the rivers, coasts, dams, watersheds, harbors and ports, and estuaries of so many states and Congressional districts. The WRDA bill presents three issues that Congress can address to make a world of difference for the ocean.

  1. Establish the National Endowment for the Oceans (NEO) – Championed by Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, NEO is a bi-partisan effort to ensure that present and future generations benefit from the ecological, economic, cultural, and recreational resources of our ocean, coasts, and Great Lakes. NEO, which passed by a strong margin in the Senate bill, would establish a beneficial fund for improving coastal management and resilience by setting up an endowment supporting work by state, regional, tribal and federal entities, as well as nonprofit organizations and academic institutions. The endowment will assist these groups when undertaking activities that protect ocean resources. The endowment will also assist groups with developing the baseline science, monitoring, and observation data to create better ocean uses that will create jobs and support coastal economies. NEO should stay in the bill and be passed by the Congress.
  2. Support the National Ocean Policy – Conversely, the House version of WRDA contains a harmful rider which would prohibit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from coordinating with coastal states to implement any ecosystem-based management, regional ocean planning program or any effort having to do with the implementation of the National Ocean Policy. Rep. Bill Flores of Waco, Texas (not a coastal district, but certainly an oil district) offered the rider and passed it on close vote. Rep. Flores has a passion for opposing the National Ocean Policy based on his idea that the EPA might try to regulate “a drop of rain that falls on your house…because that precipitation could eventually wind up in the ocean,” and has unsuccessfully tried to pass related provisions into law on numerous attempts. The Flores rider would mean that even though many states are already making planning efforts to help protect their ocean resources and support their state’s ocean economy, they would not be able to coordinate with the Army Corps on any projects. Sadly mistaken for thoughtful policy by some political conservatives, the Flores rider is not only a bad idea for ocean and coastal management, but an affront to states rights as it weakens the ability of states towards more equal footing with federal agencies on federally-funded coastal projects and ocean planning. Even worse, the exclusion of the Army Corps extensive list of water projects from regular coordination with other federal agencies under the National Ocean Policy could create very poor planning decisions whose impacts are most apparent when large weather events occur. We need regional ocean planning and we need all relative federal agencies -- including the US Army Corps of Engineers – to be involved in a comprehensive ocean planning effort under the National Ocean Policy. Congress needs to eliminate the Flores rider from the final WRDA bill.
  3. Don’t Undercut Environmental Impact Analysis – Both the House and Senate versions of the WRDA bill started out with some very difficult provisions that sought to “speed up” project development at the expense of thorough environmental impact review. A fundamental component of responsible development of any project is not just the US Army Corps desire to build, but the need to limit environmental degradation and fully involve the public and affected stakeholders. These types of harmful provisions, which sought to undercut the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and proper environmental impact review, are not unique to the WRDA bill and have been rolled out by NEPA opponents for decades. The fact is that the main delay for construction on a project tends more to be the large cost as opposed to review and public comment. Any final WRDA project which helps develop necessary infrastructure will also incorporate responsible impact analysis and meaningful stakeholder involvement. Congress should remove any provision which undercuts NEPA and stakeholder engagement.

Whether it’s Superstorm Sandy on the east coast, the threat of tsunamis on the west coast, or hurricanes along the Gulf coast, states have to deal with large storm impacts on our coastal communities and economic infrastructure. Responsible leaders understand the need to address these threats. Irrational leaders don’t. Congress can’t be held hostage to anti-government conspiracy theories when we have real work to get done. Advanced ocean and coastal planning and needed funding for future disasters could mean the difference between devastated communities and lost lives or resilient and safe communities.