Local officials lobby for fed water act

Bethany Beach officials are taking new steps toward ensuring shoreline protection projects — such as their long-awaited beach reconstruction — are supported and funded through the federal government.

First, at their Jan. 20 council meeting, they passed (6-0) a resolution titled “Yes to Beaches” that reinforces the town’s stance on shoreline protection. The resolution, which is available as a boilerplate from the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association, includes references to the economic benefit of beaches, a need to invest in water infrastructure and shoreline protection in light of weather threat and federal partnership in ongoing replenishment projects.

In the document, municipal entities urge “Congress to pass the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), support adequate funding for beach nourishment, reject all efforts to withdraw from or limit the Federal government’s role in our Nation’s beach nourishment projects and recognize that continued Federal support is critical to the sustained environmental and economic health of our coastal resources and communities.”

Following up on that resolution from the Town of Bethany Beach, council members are now working hard to lobby the state’s two U.S. senators and its sole congressman to support the WRDA, which has languished in the Senate for three years, unacted upon.

From the 2005 version, the WRDA serves: “To provide for the conservation and development of water and related resources, to authorize the Secretary of the Army to construct various projects for improvements to rivers and harbors of the United States, and for other purposes.” The 2005 version included support for the “improvement of the quality of the environment” through projects in Delaware. But while it endorsed shoreline protection, it did not include specific shoreline protection projects in Delaware.

The WRDA, in essence, sets the scope of spending for water resources projects – everything from removing hazards to navigation (through dredging, for instance) to wetlands restoration to shoreline protection (sometimes through beach reconstruction).

It is generally renewed every two years, but it was last enacted in 2002. It passed with wide bipartisan support in the U.S. House of Representatives (on a 406-14 vote, with an aye from Delaware Rep. Michael Castle) on July 14, 2005, but failed to make it to a vote on the Senate floor after it was introduced there on July 18.

The bill was considered in committee, which recommended it be considered by the Senate as a whole. It was placed on a calendar of business, but the order in which bills are considered and voted on is determined by the majority party leadership. It was mothballed on the Senate legislative calendar, and the session ended before any action was taken.

Most recently, it was emphasized to town council officials that neither Delaware senator was among 44 senators who signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid), dated Sept. 28, that called for WRDA to be voted upon in the Senate last session. Since learning of the lack of those two signatures on the letter, the town officials have been asking why that might have been the case, concerned that perhaps the senators’ support for beach replenishment projects was spotty.

The letter reads, in part: “Earlier this year, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved S. 728, the Water Resources Development Act of 2005 (WRDA). The devastation along the Gulf Coast has served as a warning to America to shore up our defenses against catastrophic floods. With these vivid images in mind, we urge you to grant floor time for this bill prior to the completion of this session of Congress.”

WRDA has been considered by opponents to be a problematic piece of legislation, in that it can include earmarks for specific projects that some may not endorse and others classify simply as “pork,” such as repairs on the lock system for the Mississippi River — a controversial project that appeared in the act in the 2005 edition. It also generally includes some sweeping statements of federal policy endorsing shoreline protection and other water-related views that could be seen as a blank check.

Because of that earmarking and sweeping policy endorsement, it’s also one place legislators have sought to incorporate additional oversight of the Army Corps of Engineers — particularly in how the Corps selects projects and pays for them.

And that is the main reason that the Sept. 28 letter lacks the signature of Sen. Tom Carper, according to his representatives. But the legislation still got a thumbs-up from Carper when it came time to vote for it to go forward to a Senate committee, they emphasized.

“The senator voted to move WRDA through the EPW (Environment and Public Works) Committee in April with understanding that some issues would be worked out. He didn’t sign the letter because those issues hadn’t come up yet,” they said.

Most striking of the reasons the Corps came under increased scrutiny in 2005 was indeed the devastation coastal areas felt in the calamitous hurricane season.

“WRDA has not been reviewed in light of Hurricane Katrina and the disaster it wreaked on the Gulf Coast. That brought to the forefront questions about the Corps and how they develop flood-control projects, as well as how they are evaluated,” Carper’s spokesperson said. “The senator wants those issues looked into.”

But the core of WRDA still gets Carper’s full support.

Likewise, Sen. Joe Biden’s camp also said he supports WRDA, but with some concerns about how the Corps was addressed in the 2005 act.

“There was some language in WRDA regarding restructuring of the Corps,” Biden’s spokesperson said. “Aside from that, he is supportive of getting the bill onto the floor. … He thinks there are important projects in the bill that need to be authorized. Hopefully, the Republican leadership will get it moving onto the floor.”

There was notably some limitation put on the Corps in the Water and Energy Appropriations Bill enacted by Congress in late 2005 for the 2006 fiscal year. That put a slight cramp in the funds that were, in the end, authorized for the Bethany Beach-South Bethany beach reconstruction project, which is now estimated to begin construction in October 2006. The appropriations bills that are enacted each budget year specifically define the projects the federal government will pay for, whereas the WRDA is considered the way to define a range of options for what the government — or the Corps — will be allowed to consider paying for.

The appropriations process for the 2007 fiscal year should begin in February with President George W. Bush’s budget recommendations (usually no funding for beach reconstruction) and could greatly impact the planned Bethany-South Bethany project, if sufficient funds are not appropriated for it. The timing of the passage of the appropriations bill will also, to some degree, dictate when the construction on that project could begin.

WRDA, for its part, is expected to come back up for votes in the House and Senate again in 2006, though whether the legislation will make it any further than it did in 2005 (or 2004, or 2003) remains to be seen.

Bethany Beach officials are hoping that WRDA will be brought back to life this year, further cementing future protection for beaches, and with the unequivocal support of the state’s two senators. They’re working to make that happen.