Federal Water Legislation Poised to Benefit Birds and People

Annual bill would advance projects and studies to improve critical coastal and inland waterways.
Least Tern.

Every two years, Congress works to pass a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which authorizes water projects and studies across the country. These bills generally receive bipartisan support and are opportunities to advance natural infrastructure and ecosystem restoration for critical waterways like the Everglades, Mississippi River, and the Great Lakes.   

This week, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee unanimously passed draft WRDA legislation. The bill focuses on Army Corps of Engineers projects and studies, and includes a number of project authorizations supported by Audubon. The draft passed last week builds upon previous work to bolster the ecosystem restoration mission of the Corps in a bipartisan manner.  

In particular, Audubon was pleased to see increases in the federal cost-share for the Brandon Road Lock and Dam Project, which aims to keep invasive carp out of the Great Lakes and prevent an ecological catastrophe. The federal cost-share was also increased for the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Ecosystem Restoration Plan and the Lower Mississippi River Comprehensive Management Study. Audubon supports these increases and continues to urge full federal cost-share for all three. 

The EPW WRDA bill includes several project authorizations for the Everglades and Audubon continues to support efforts to build upon the positive additions from WRDA 2020. Two years ago, WRDA authorized the Loxahatchee River Watershed Restoration Project and recommitted to the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir (EAA Reservoir) as part of the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP). The EAA Reservoir is the single most important project for benefitting multiple parts of the Everglades; once completed, it will store freshwater and slowly discharge water to the fragile coastal estuaries east and west of Lake Okeechobee.  

For the Mississippi River, Audubon is pleased to see the authorization for the Upper Mississippi River Restoration (UMRR) program is increased to $75 million. Additionally, the inclusion of the Upper Mississippi River and its tributaries in the Harmful Algal Bloom demonstration program authorized in WRDA 2020 will be critical in examining how the upper watershed is impacted by algal blooms.  

Audubon’s vice president for Water Conservation, Julie Hill-Gabriel, testified in February before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure – the House counterpart to EPW. Julie’s testimony highlighted ways the federal government must take action, through WRDA, to protect birds and communities across the country. In particular, WRDA 2022 offers ways to increase climate resilience, through the use of natural infrastructure and nature-based solutions that replicate ecosystem functions. These types of projects can address historic injustices, too, by prioritizing those communities most threatened by the impacts of climate change.  

One important piece of natural infrastructure legislation, the Shoreline Health Oversight, Restoration, and Resilience, and Enhancement Act (SHORRE Act) (S. 3624), is largely included in the EPW draft. The SHORRE Act underscores the importance of natural infrastructure in our national flood and storm management systems. The Act provides better opportunities for protection and resilience for disproportionately vulnerable coastal and riverine communities and includes climate change considerations in coastal and riverine storm and flood protection and mitigation. It also upholds important protections under the Coastal Barrier Resources Act for sensitive coastal areas, while providing federal financial support to certain beach communities to access sand from alternative areas. Audubon is pleased to see many of the SHORRE Act provisions in the EPW WRDA draft.  

Finally, the bill also includes an important western water natural infrastructure study, which will examine the effectiveness of changing hydrologic conditions, mitigating drought risk, and restoring aquatic ecosystem habitat, among others. Across the Western United States, federally-owned water-related infrastructure faces threats from climate change. Improved understanding of the utilization of both natural features and nature-based techniques can enhance and sustain critical infrastructure functions such as water storage and delivery. Audubon looks forward to the inclusion of natural infrastructure approaches through Corps programming. 

Now that EPW passed a draft bill, the focus will turn to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Audubon looks forward to sharing our natural infrastructure and ecosystem priorities with both committees as they negotiate final WRDA provisions for 2022.