A black cloud hovered over the National Waterways Conference’s annual legislative summit in Washington, D.C., this week, with talk focused on deep budget cuts, the growing influence of environmentalists, and a ban on earmarks.
“When you look at what is going on today [in Washington], there’s the potential for significant change in the world as we have come to know it,” Fred Caver, NWC’s chairman and a former deputy director of civil works at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said at the summit.
In opening the meeting on March 8, Caver said that Congress is considering fundamental changes in policy and spending that will impact federal investment in the nation’s locks and dams, ports and the future of inland and coastal transportation.
He said the EPA, failing to have its jurisdiction expanded under the Clean Water Act, is extending its reach administratively. This could effect CWA Section 404 permits that are required in order to discharge dredged or fill material into waterways. “Existing permits might not stay in effect,” he said.
In addition, “in a foolish rush to appear that they are being fiscally responsible,” Caver said Congress has banned earmark spending. This will hit federal water projects especially hard since they are funded in response to lawmakers’ requests.
As a result, Congress will be handing over sole discretion to the Obama administration to decide which projects to fund, which ports to dredge, and which dams to build. “This means that just a small group of people at the Office of Management and the Budget will determine what projects get funded and at how much.”
Caver added that there’s been a shift in the Corps of Engineers budget toward funding environmental projects, favoring things like aquatic ecosystem restoration, while cutting funds for navigation and flood control. “Several deep-draft navigation projects are being shut down,” he said.
Adding further to the challenge, he said, is that water resources have lost important allies in Congress either due to defeats in the November elections, or to political promises made by lawmakers to cut the deficit and trim federal spending. “The reliable friends we could count on in Congress are no longer jumping to our rescue,” Caver said. “All this represents a very troubling change in this nation’s priorities in regards to water resources.”
He said NWC has reorganized itself to respond to these challenges by uniting various water resources interests under a common goal.