Sen. Levin speaks out on Water Resources Development Act

WASHINGTON – Michigan Senator Carl Levin placed the following statement in the Congressional Record today during debate on the Water Resources Development Act, which includes measures he has supported to secure funding to reduce the backlog of dredging projects on the Great Lakes. The Senate passed WRDA by an 83-14 vote.

“Mr. President, Michigan is a water state.  The state is surrounded by water on three of its sides; we depend on our vital water resources for drinking water and commerce; water provides opportunities for recreation, rest, and reflection. Our waters define us. It has been six years since the last Water Resources Development Act was passed.  This bill includes several provisions that will improve the management of Michigan’s water resources, such as critical harbor maintenance, upgrades to drinking and wastewater systems, flood control projects, and restoration of aquatic resources, and I will support its passage.

“This bill makes some progress toward improving the Great Lakes Navigation System, and I am pleased that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee worked with us to address concerns with the reported bill.  The bill would increase authorized appropriations for harbor maintenance, beginning with $1 billion in fiscal year 2014, and increasing every year thereafter by $100 million through fiscal year 2019.  In fiscal year 2020 and beyond, the bill would require that total budget resources for harbor maintenance equal the full amount of funds collected for that purpose. Currently, only about half of the funds collected from shippers for harbor maintenance are used for harbor maintenance.  The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, into which the fees from shippers are collected, has a balance of over $7 billion.

“Great Lakes harbors and channels are in great need of dredging.  A backlog of dredging projects forces vessels to carry less than their capacity, threatens to close harbors and increases the risk of vessel groundings.  These funds need to be used for harbor maintenance instead of for other purposes.  I have been fighting to free these funds, and worked with the EPW Committee to incorporate the text of the Harbor Maintenance Act of 2013, which I introduced earlier this year in February, into the committee-reported bill.  While the point of order enforcement language of my bill that would have required full funding immediately for harbor maintenance was not included in the final version, the compromise language that would phase in the increased funding still represents progress.  The next step in the dredging battle will be to work with appropriators so that funding is provided at the authorized levels.

“I am also pleased that the EPW committee responded to my concerns regarding how harbor maintenance funding was prioritized.  I had written a letter to EPW that was signed by 10 other Great Lakes Senators expressing our concerns, and EPW responded by including a provision in the bill that would prioritize 20 percent of harbor maintenance funds in excess of fiscal year 2012 levels for the Great Lakes.  This set-aside represents real progress, and I hope appropriators will provide funding in accordance with this directive in the bill.

“I am also pleased that my amendment concerning other uses of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund was agreed to by the full Senate.  That amendment, which was co-sponsored by Senator Stabenow, makes clear that the primary use of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is for maintaining the constructed widths and depths of ports and harbors, and that those functions should be given first consideration in the budgeting of Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund allocations.  I fought for this language because the bill includes a new authorization for other uses of the trust fund, and I wanted to make sure that harbor maintenance, including that of the Great Lakes, has a higher claim for these funds than the other new uses.

“In addition to the beneficial harbor maintenance provisions, the bill also includes a number of other provisions that could benefit Michigan.  A new pilot program, called the Water Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act,  is included in the bill, and it would increase options for financing our nation’s water and wastewater infrastructure by providing loan guarantees and low interest loans with flexible repayment terms. WIFIA is a positive provision for Michigan and the nation that will help to address the ongoing problems we face with aging and outdated infrastructure.

“As Michigan and much of the Midwest recover from damaging flooding, I am pleased to see an authorization for the National Levee Safety Program and the establishment of a National Levee Safety Advisory Board.  The Board will provide technical assistance to states and tribes on levee safety and facilitate the development of levee safety programs through a federal grant program. Levees are an essential part of our flood protection infrastructure. This provision will hopefully ensure our levees are constructed and maintained using sound science and the best available information.

“The bill also includes a provision on dam safety that is critical to Michigan communities. The Dam Safety Program provides grant assistance to states for the training of dam safety staff and for the development of safety monitoring programs. This bill also helps us in the Asian carp fight.  I worked with Senator Gillibrand to include a provision that would authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to implement emergency measures to prevent Asian carp and other invasive species from getting into the Great Lakes.  That language is based on a provision I was able to get included in an appropriations bill for fiscal year 2012, and including it in the WRDA bill would make the authority permanent.

“Mr. President, I also want to mention the shadow that hangs over this legislation and all the other legislation before us. That shadow is sequestration, and until we lift that shadow, it will erode the good we seek to accomplish with this legislation and everything else we do.

“The projects authorized in this bill will touch every state in our nation, put Americans to work, help American companies sell their goods here and around the world, improve our navigation systems, and provide clean drinking water for our homes and businesses. But authorizing these projects is not enough. We also need to appropriate the money to execute these projects. And so long as sequestration remains in effect, so long as we continue to view our fiscal challenges as exclusively a matter of cutting budgets, so long as we ignore the desires of the American public and the realities of budget math and refuse to adopt a balanced approach to deficit reduction – so long as all that continues, those appropriations will be reduced. As a result, water projects will suffer, health and education programs will suffer, law enforcement, border security, food inspections and more will suffer. The Speaker of the House said not long ago, ‘We can’t cut our way to prosperity.’ He’s right. We can’t cut our way to clean water or operable harbors either. We need to keep that in mind as we consider budget solutions going forward.

“Despite the challenge of sequestration and continued fiscal pressures, the bill before us represents progress for America’s waterways and the people who depend on them, and in particular for the precious waters of my state of Michigan. I urge my colleagues to support this much-needed legislation.”