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Written by Brad Walker, Rivers Director        July 10, 2013

The New WRDA: A dysfunctional and effective method of wealth distribution to corporations

The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which is better called the Water Resources Destruction Act, passed in the Senate on May 15, 2013 by a margin of 83 to 14. The Senate is controlled by Democrats with a narrow majority. And yet, the body passed a giveaway to corporations on a huge scale with literally unknown and with huge consequences to the environment, essential social programs and to the wallets of most Americans.

WRDA authorizes studies and projects within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps) primary mission areas: 1) commercial navigation; 2) flood risk management; and 3) aquatic ecosystem restoration. The projects that are authorized, historically through an earmarking process, include locks, dams, levees, beach sand replenishment, river island building and channel dredging. WRDA can also affect, through the Corps permitting process, public and private structures and infrastructure near, over, or under rivers.

The bill will circumvent and undermine fundamental environmental laws as well as shift billions of dollars of costs for inland waterways system projects from the industry that uses and depends on the system to the taxpayers who receive little benefit from this already 90+% subsidized system. This shift is slyly done by replacing existing legislative language with new language (Go to page 321, lines 8 through 12 to see this change). Its impact would be incoherent without access to the full text. What business can’t succeed with a 90% subsidy of its major expenses? A recent Forbes article sheds some light on the inland waterways navigation system and its immense subsidies.

The Senate’s WRDA bill will increase the Corps ability to spend taxpayer’s money at its own discretion with reduced oversight while concurrently fining the natural resources agencies who are responsible for protecting those resources for not meeting project review deadlines. Never mind that the staffs of those agencies have been gutted by past budget cuts. The bill will do nothing to reduce the Corps bloated $60 billion backlog of projects. In fact, it will likely increase the backlog.

The Senate is supposed to be the deliberative body of Congress but the body rammed through this bill in short order with virtually no public input or meaningful debate. Plenty of industry lobbying shaped the bill though. The lack of debate over an industry with a 90% taxpayer subsidy amidst the rhetoric about cutting government and trimming the deficit – remember the ‘fiscal cliff’ and the ‘sequester’? – marks just how controlled our government has become by corporations and how little it responds to or cares about the public who elects its members.

The current WRDA process is fatally flawed and allows a dysfunctional Congress to pretend to do the people’s work while it instead shifts wealth to corporations and continues to undermine the health of our rivers – then pats itself on the back for a job well done. The beneficiaries are almost exclusively industries that use the river to ship bulk commodities at artificially cheap shipping rates such as corn, soybeans, coal, fertilizer, and petroleum products and the companies hauling these commodities. The entire process needs to be abandoned and a new process that removes the political influence of lobbyists and parochialism of individual, ill-informed elected officials.

What A Solution Looks Like

A new and improved process is needed to remove the earmark-driven and too often corrupt decisions by Congress for individual projects. It must curb their eagerness to arbitrarily modify the environmental-related aspects of the process. It must require the water resources project development work, with the assistance of the Corps, be accomplished by appointed unbiased, qualified professionals located within the specific watersheds organized into watershed commissions. Under an improved process, Congress would be responsible for determining multi-year budgets (around 5-years); authorizing projects recommended by the commissions to match the budget length funding; and approving process improvements through refining legislation – again recommended by objective professionals, not private entities with vested interests.

In a new process, only valid and justifiable projects selected by the watershed commission through a quantifiable prioritization system would be referred to Congress for approval and appropriations, and then ultimately to the Corps for design and construction. The projects would have to have merit to warrant funding.

Instead, the Senate has given us a template for more corporate subsidies that sidestep free market forces and give special projects a pass on environmental standards and considerations. That’s a recipe for political pork.

You can contact your U.S. Senator and voice your opinion about this bill. If you are one of the tiny group of beneficiaries you can congratulate them on a job well done. However if you are one of the vast majority who will have your wallet fleeced for the foreseeable future if this bill becomes law, please offer your strong disappointment in their action. You might also call your U.S. Representative and ask them to not support a bill like the Senate’s.

You can read more about the Inland Waterways System on our website.

Brad Walker is Sustainability & Big Rivers Director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.