Water bill would aid completion of Natomas levee project

Published: Wednesday, Sep. 11, 2013 - 9:48 pm

House lawmakers introduced their version of a bill Wednesday to move forward on an array of water projects across the country, including the final phases of the Natomas Levee Improvement Project.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act would authorize repair and improvements to dams and levees, the deepening of harbors and navigation channels, and flood control and coastal protection projects.

The legislation, which has been a top priority for Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, would bring the $1.4 billion Natomas levee project closer to completion, protecting California’s capital from a 200-year flood and ending a federal moratorium on new construction in the floodplain.

“The people of Sacramento have waited long enough,” Matsui said in a statement Wednesday. “Now is the time to move forward with legislation that will authorize” the levee project’s completion.

The House bill also includes a provision sought by Matsui asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reconsider a policy of vegetation management on levee systems that she and environmental groups have said worsens erosion. Matsui wants the Corps to modify the policy to recognize the needs of different regions instead of applying the same policy everywhere.

Ron Stork, policy director of Friends of the River, a Sacramento river conservation group, said the language in the House bill doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t tell the Corps to stop eliminating levee vegetation and leaves the current guidelines in place for agencies that work with the Corps.

“The erosion protection and community amenities offered by trees and shrubs near many California and U.S. waterways will remain at risk,” Stork said in an email.

Congress last passed a water-infrastructure bill in 2007, and traditionally such legislation sails through the Senate and House on a bipartisan basis.

“I urge the House to move quickly so that we can reconcile the House and Senate approaches and get a water resources development bill to the president’s desk,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who led a similar bill to Senate passage, said in a statement Wednesday.

The Senate overwhelmingly approved its version of the bill in May by a vote of 83-14. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, expressed confidence Wednesday that the House legislation also would succeed.

With the Atlantic and Gulf coasts reeling from the impact of hurricanes, locks and dams deteriorating on Midwestern rivers, East Coast ports needing to accommodate bigger ships and the threat of catastrophic floods in major cities, the legislation serves many critical needs. But with Washington consumed by sharp divisions over fiscal policy, foreign policy and immigration, easy passage of the latest bill is no guarantee.

The House is adding the water legislation to a pile of unfinished business, immigration reform and the debt limit.

Still, Matsui said it was time to move forward with legislation she’s been pushing in Congress for more than two years.

“It is time to fix and strengthen America’s levees,” she said. “We cannot let this important legislative effort linger any longer.”

The House bill is designed to speed up the approval process for the projects it authorizes, amid complaints from state and local governments that environmental reviews lead to increased delays and costs. The bill limits the time and cost for such studies to three years and $3 million, and sunsets project authorizations after seven years. Both provisions are aimed at clearing a backlog of needed work.

In a move designed to satisfy the most fiscally conservative members of the House, the bill contains no earmarks – funds usually set aside for pet projects in lawmakers’ districts – and aims to find $12 billion in cost offsets by de-authorizing projects that have not moved forward.

Call Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, (202) 383-6018.

Read more articles by Curtis Tate

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