WASHINGTON -- Amid sharply partisan exchanges over guns, immigration and the federal budget, the debate that began in the Senate this week over a water resources bill seems relatively tame.
This is the same Senate where it usually requires 60 votes to get anything done. And while Senate Democrats and Republicans praised each other for their work on the Water Resources Development Act, the bill also must pass the House of Representatives, where bipartisan agreement is even harder to achieve.
But after a series of deadly and costly storms slammed the East and Gulf coasts in recent years, the water legislation may be the best chance for lawmakers to prove that Washington isn’t completely dysfunctional and can attempt to fix an urgent problem.
The $12.5 billion bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, and David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, would authorize funding for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects, including dams and levees, ports and inland waterways, and coastal protection and restoration.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which Boxer leads, unanimously approved the legislation in March.
“It’s long past time,” Boxer said on the Senate floor Tuesday when she introduced the bill. “Flood control and flood protection is critical. All we have to do is look at Sandy.”
Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast in October, killing more than 100 people and causing $60 billion in damage, especially in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Seven years earlier, the costliest disaster in U.S. history, Hurricane Katrina, toppled levees in New Orleans, flooding the city and killing more than 1,000 people along the Gulf Coast, with damages reaching more than $100 billion.
Overall, the legislation includes funding for flood control and storm protection projects across the country and has broad support from business and labor groups. But it also faces opposition.
Environmentalists, several senators and the White House have voiced concern over provisions that would put corps projects on a faster track to completion and give the agency more discretion to choose which projects to fund, a change from the previous water resources bill.
“It should be Congress’ job to authorize projects,” said Ron Stork, policy director for Friends of the River, an environmental group in Sacramento, Calif. “There are projects that should not be authorized.”
The bill also would speed up the environmental review process for corps projects. Critics of the process, including both Republicans and Democrats, complain that the reviews contribute to delays and cost overruns.
Usually an ally of environmentalists, Boxer has been taking some heat. Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, accused her of sacrificing the country’s “premier environmental law,” the National Environmental Policy Act.
“There was enough incentive in the bill to get bipartisan support . . . without undercutting one of the key environmental statutes,” he said.
Boxer and Vitter amended the bill to address some of the concerns of environmentalists and others, but the streamlining provisions clearly opened a rift. Boxer defended her environmental record and the bill and chastised some erstwhile allies.
“I don’t think they’ve read it,” she told reporters Tuesday.
Stork, whose group supports authorization for a levee project in Sacramento but opposes streamlining, disagreed.
“A lot of people who are pretty darn knowledgeable have read the bill,” he said. “They’re pretty appalled by those provisions.”
Government watchdogs, meanwhile, are upset about the bill’s price tag. Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a fiscal oversight group in Washington, warned that it ultimately would cost taxpayers more than advertised.
“We need to prioritize, and this does nothing to do that,” he said.
Boxer’s bill also looks to prevent a potential disaster from happening in her home state. California’s capital, Sacramento, sits at the confluence of two rivers that drain melting snow from the Sierra Nevada mountains. The city’s levee system would likely fail in a catastrophic storm, possibly putting the safety of hundreds of thousands of people at risk and disrupting commerce and government in the country’s most populous state.
The bill authorizes about $1 billion to repair the levees.
“We have to strengthen the levees there,” Boxer said Tuesday. “We are talking about the need to prevent terrible flooding.”
Sandy and Katrina demonstrated the vulnerability of the country’s aging flood protection system. The American Society of Civil Engineers 2013 Infrastructure Report Card gave dams in the country a “D” and levees a “D-minus.” The Corps of Engineers has a backlog of roughly $60 billion in projects.
Mark Funkhouser, director of the Governing Institute, a state and local policy organization in Washington, said he understood the environmental concerns but also the frustration over the corps’ slowness. Funkhouser was mayor of Kansas City, Mo., from 2007 to 2011, and his city’s aging levees almost failed two decades ago in catastrophic flooding on the Missouri River. Not much has been done to improve them since, he said, and they would need $400 million to fix.
“Those levees are in serious disrepair,” he said. “They’re not like fine wine. They don’t improve, they get worse.”
Funkhouser said he welcomed Boxer’s bill.
“On the whole, I would see this as progress,” he said.