Building Resilient Communities

The new Water Resources Development Act increases the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ support of crucial waterways through efficient project development delivery.

Congressman Garret Graves, a Republican member of Congress representing Louisiana’s Sixth Congressional District, recently backed a bill that President Donald Trump has signed into law titled the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). The Act — which garnered bi-partisan support in Congress and is designed to increase the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) support of initiatives like flood and storm defense and coastal restoration — will be largely beneficial to our ports and other industries that rely on efficient waterways.

There are a number of important provisions in the bill, including one that relates to the development and delivery of projects in Louisiana that have already been approved by Congress, but that are stuck in either a study process or a planning, engineering or design process.

“These projects, in many cases, are essential,” Graves said. “So we have a provision that looks at the viability of moving the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ mission to a different agency.”

As of now, the Secretary of Defense oversees the USACE’s mission. However, Congressman Graves suggests that the USACE’s responsibilities would be better administered through an agency where it can be a priority, such as the Department of Transportation or the Department of the Interior.

“Our Secretary of Defense is responsible for ensuring our national defense,” Graves said. “As important as I think it is to deepen the Mississippi River, restore the coast of Louisiana or provide hurricane protection, that can’t be as important as national defense to our Secretary of Defense, and I don’t think that the mission is compatible.”

Another provision in the bill relates to ports and dredging, providing for a five-year operation and management contract. This provision puts the onus on the industry, rather than the USACE, to maintain navigational certainty.

“In many cases, dredging is done on an annual spot basis,” Graves said. “Instead of spending all this money on mobilization and demobilization costs, like we do now, and being so reactive, we can effectively have a dredge that constantly works a region by lumping navigation channels in together and providing long-term contracts.”

The WRDA is beneficial to South Louisiana in a number of ways. First, it will expand on the ability of non-federal interests to take the lead on building projects (with the USACE as the granting agency) to complete more projects at a fraction of the cost.

Secondly, the WRDA allows for non-federal entities to effectively use the USACE’s regulatory process so that funds can be better utilized. The Act does so by saying that if a project has already been approved from a regulatory perspective for the USACE, then the state or local authority can use that same process as if they were the USACE implementing the project.

Yet another benefit to South Louisiana is a provision that requires the USACE to accept the lowest form of acquisition that’s still compatible with a project — i.e. accepting donated land through project easements rather than requiring a fee title.

According to Graves, the priority now is to focus on the most important provisions in the bill, in order to see on-the-ground benefits in the next year. The most critical projects in Louisiana involve the restoration of the coastal wetlands and coastal ecosystem.

“We have projects that we’re working on right now that have to do with hurricane protection that are fully funded, such as deepening the Mississippi River to handle the larger mass flows tracing the Panama Canal, and it’s all about implementation,” Graves said.

“We appreciate Congressman Graves’ support of the WRDA bill; more importantly, we appreciate his efforts to dredge the mouth of the Mississippi River to 50 feet and to keep it dredged to that depth,” said Port of South Louisiana Executive Director Paul Aucoin. “Dredging the mouth of the River is important to the entire country, not just to Louisiana.”

The Act will provide Louisiana with about $500 million in credit for coastal restoration projects, which can be used by the state in lieu of cash-cost shares required by the state. This means that the state of Louisiana will get credit for work on authorized projects that have already been completed (without waiting on the USACE to advance them), and will then be able to use those credits against cost share on other restoration projects. Ultimately, the theme of the bill is to recognize that there is a $100 billion backlog of USACE projects that have been authorized by Congress for construction.

“It’s all about truly delivering on these projects; to move dirt,” Graves said. “In the state of Louisiana, we’ve lost 2,000 miles of our coastal wetlands. Finding better ways to move these projects forward for the resilience of our communities is so important, not just here, but around the United States.”