Water and Natural Infrastructure Get Major Boost in End-of-Year Deal

The Water Resources Development Act of 2020 will direct important resources to ecosystem restoration projects, water conservation, and natural infrastructure projects.

Thanks to sustained bipartisan support, the 2020 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) will be enacted as part of the omnibus appropriations legislation passed this week. WRDA is critically important because it authorizes projects and programs led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study, design, and construct water transportation and infrastructure projects including the restoration and maintenance of wetlands and watersheds critically important to birds and the flood resilience of communities.

Audubon was pleased to see inclusion of robust support for natural infrastructure projects and programs. Natural infrastructure projects— such as restoring wetlands, oyster reefs, and coastal forests — reduce climate threats to communities from flooding and sea-level rise, and also provide important habitat for wildlife.  Federal investment in natural infrastructure increases preparedness of coastal communities and economies and creates local jobs.

“The passage of WRDA 2020 shows that protecting and conserving our water resources continues to be an issue where both parties can find common ground,” said Sarah Greenberger, interim chief conservation officer and senior vice president for Conservation Policy. “The natural infrastructure provisions included in WRDA 2020 will bolster efforts to provide climate resilience benefits to communities and habitat for birds at the same time.”

Audubon worked with coalition partners throughout the WRDA process to support projects in the Everglades, the Mississippi River basin, the Great Lakes region, the Rio Grande watershed, and the Chesapeake Bay. Projects in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) will continue restoring this critical ecosystem, while restoring habitat for species like the Roseate Spoonbill and balancing the water needs of nearby communities.

Authorized studies like the Comprehensive Study of the Lower Mississippi River System will examine flood management, navigation, and ecosystem restoration while investigating the use of natural and nature-based features to support these priorities. Audubon has long supported the Brandon Road study, an interbasin study for ecosystem restoration in the Great Lakes region, and we also support the authorization of a Great Lakes coastal resiliency study.

The final bill includes provisions that will benefit economically disadvantaged communities by waiving cost share requirements and promoting technical assistance for community resiliency planning. Audubon looks forward to working with partners on-the-ground to implement many of these critical conservation projects.

It also includes support for additional pilot projects to use valuable dredged sediments for ecosystem restoration and calls on the Corps to account for the environmental and social benefits of using dredged materials for restoration rather than disposing of valuable sediments. These provisions will support environmentally beneficial restoration and resilience projects, like restoration of Crab Bank in Charleston Harbor, where Audubon South Carolina is working to deploy dredged sediments to rebuild an important nesting island that also serves a natural buffer for communities on the mainland.

WRDA also supports habitats and waterways in the Mountain West and Southwest. “Given a 20-year drought in the arid West—and with no end in sight—WRDA continues to provide much needed funding for mitigating and adapting to our changing climate,” said Karyn Stockdale, senior director of Audubon’s Western Water Initiative. “I’m pleased to see that this iteration of WRDA includes a requirement for consultation with tribal communities and communities of color, and that it reauthorizes the Rio Grande Environmental Management Program. Through creating natural infrastructure and other improvements, WRDA allows us to address dwindling water supplies, while protecting our economy and birds such as the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and Yellow Warbler.”

Audubon has been working hard to make sure that the 2020 WRDA not only is passed in this Congress, but that it addresses the need to build climate resilience, restore critical habitats, invest in water conservation, and ensure equity in how the government takes on new water projects.

In July of last year, the head of Audubon’s water program, Julie Hill-Gabriel, testified to the House U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment on the benefits of natural infrastructure.

In 2018, Audubon released a Natural Infrastructure Report: How Natural Infrastructure Can Shape a Resilient Coast for Birds and People. This report demonstrated how federal investment in natural infrastruc­ture will help increase preparedness of coastal communities and economies, while benefitting fish and wildlife, which also often provide a critical foundation for coastal economies.