After a Year of Wrangling, Congress Finally Passes a Dam Bill

Last month, the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), a bill that authorizes 34 water resources projects including the dredging of ports and improvements to the nation's inland water system. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of these projects to be $12.3 billion between 2015 and 2024. While the passage of the bill was widely praised, the level of funding is far from sufficient to offset the unmet need to repair and restore our nation’s dams, levees, and ports.

Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that the nation needed to spend $30 billion on inland waterways and ports by 2020. Clearly, Congress has approved only a fraction of what is needed to restore our water transport infrastructure to top working condition.

The bill was the first water infrastructure legislation to pass since 2007 when Congress authorized $23.3 billion. In order to pay for the cost of the current bill, Congress deauthorized funding for $18 billion of dormant projects approved in the 2007 bill. Congress is simply redirecting previously approved funds not yet spent, and the funds supply only a portion of spending needed to meet current needs.

More than 14 million Americans live or work in areas protected by nearly 15,000 miles of federally maintained levees. The average levee in the federal system is 55 years old. Of the levees that have been reviewed by engineers, 22 percent were found to be in unacceptable condition and 69 percent in minimally acceptable condition. Restoring these levees to fully acceptable condition would cost $100 billion.  Redirecting $12.3 billion in funding to deal with these repairs over the next nine years is just a drop in the canal.

Moreover, the WRRDA opens the door to infrastructure privatization projects by establishing the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Authority (WIFIA). While this pilot project is authorized to spend only $175 million, it could set the stage for further privatization efforts over time.

The new authority is based on the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Authority, which allows state and local governments to issue low-interest loans to pay private companies to build public infrastructure. These publicly subsidized loans to for-profit corporations are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, so if a project goes bad, the public is on the hook. Privatized infrastructure projects around the world have often led to higher long-term costs and reduced public accountability.

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