Water Resources Development Act Providing Opportunities for Parks and Recreation

July 1, 2013, Department, by Blake Houston

New legislation offers promise for wetland and waterfront parks.Passed by Congress in several different forms throughout the past 40 years, the Water Development Resources Act (WRDA) provides support for water projects and studies, from navigational infrastructure to stream revitalization. Typically, WRDA legislation provides the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with the authority to study specific water-resource problems, construct projects and make major modifications to current projects. Projects authorized by WRDA must still be funded with appropriations, but this funding is available for state and local projects, too, not just those on federal lands.

Both the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) and House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) committees have named passage of WRDA as one of their top priorities in 2013. It has taken six years and continuous congressional high-wire balancing to formulate WRDA language that circumvents earmarks, yet authorizes projects. In March, the Senate EPW Committee unanimously approved a bipartisan WRDA (S.B. 601), due in large part to the persistence of EPW Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and new ranking member David Vitter (R-LA). The bill was passed by the Senate (83–14) in May. Attention now turns to the House, where the T&I Committee under the leadership of its new Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) plans to draft its own bill with the eventual goal of getting to conference with the Senate sometime this Congress.

Projects previously approved by Congress include funding for areas affected by floods, shoreline protections and upgrades to recreational camping areas. For example, in the last WRDA (2007), Compton Creek, California, listed its flood-control project purpose as restoration and recreation because of the importance recreational activities have for the area. Idaho’s Riley Creek Recreation Area was approved for a project to update the park’s campsites, picnic areas, roads, sewer system, parking lot, restrooms, docks and boat launches. Past WRDAs have been important to urban waterfronts, and the current WRDA bill under consideration is similarly important. Urban waterfront projects range from navigation and shipping improvements to economic development projects to ecosystem restoration projects.

Previous WRDA bills have authorized funding for numerous parks to conduct environmental restoration and stream revitalization projects and studies, and those types of projects are very likely to be eligible in WRDA 2013 as well. One of the ways WRDA can provide for parks is through an “environmental review.” Established under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), an environmental review ensures that all projects receiving federal funding are completed in a way that is suitable for wildlife, ecosystems and public health. S.B. 601 would streamline the environmental review process by requiring all governmental agencies to coordinate the environmental review process or face monetary penalties. Additionally, the Corps would be required to resolve any delays in the environmental review process. If it is unable to do so, the matter would be referred to the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and, ultimately, the president.

In order to preserve the environment for future generations, the 2007 WRDA authorized a large environmental restoration project in New Jersey’s Liberty State Park. The restoration of 234 acres provides substantial benefits by linking previously developed and restored, but isolated, components of the park into one cohesive whole. The restoration project includes the creation of approximately 46 acres of salt marsh, the enhancement of approximately 26 acres of freshwater wetlands, the creation of approximately 50 acres of warm-weather grasslands and the enhancement of approximately 100 acres of northern hardwoods and maritime shrub assemblages.

Parks can also utilize WRDA through streambank stabilization, a vegetative or mechanical method of preventing erosion or deterioration of the banks of waterways. Streams and rivers often need protection from pesticides and nutrients that can pollute habitats if they enter the waterway. Previous WRDAs have provided for vegetated streambank stabilization, which not only acts as a barrier to pollutants but often provides the added benefit of preserving and cooling the water during the summer via shade created by native plants. In a healthy water system, banks are relatively stable because they are held together by vegetation growing very close to or even in the water itself.

Another tool that can be used by parks is wetlands mitigation. Mitigation lessens the adverse environmental impacts of development projects by avoiding the impact altogether, minimizing the impacts or by compensating for the impact by replacing or providing substitute resources or environments. The 1986 WRDA contains a number of provisions that specifically address wetland protection, the most significant of which are its mitigation requirements, and the 1990 WRDA established wetland protection goals for the Corps. Prior to passage of the 1986 WRDA, mitigation policy for wetlands losses resulting specifically from water projects had not been well articulated by Congress, and mitigation occurred irregularly. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the 2007 WRDA saw an uptick in wetland mitigation and restoration proposals. See “Take It to the Bank” for more.

EPW’s markup of WRDA 2013 couldn’t come at a better time. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently issued its “2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,” which rated Public Parks and Recreation as a C-. The report went on to say, “The popularity of parks and outdoor recreation areas in the United States continues to grow, with over 140 million Americans making use of these facilities a part of their daily lives. These activities contribute $646 billion to the nation’s economy, supporting 6.1 million jobs. Yet states and localities struggle to provide these benefits for parks amid flat and declining budgets, reporting an estimated $18.5 billion in unmet needs in 2011. The federal government is also facing a serious challenge as well since the National Park Service estimates its maintenance backlog at approximately $11 billion.” Whether Congress can find the votes to pass a new WRDA remains to be seen; however, it’s certain that America needs this legislation sooner rather than later.

Blake Houston is a research associate with The Ferguson Group, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm that represents NRPA on Capitol Hill. Stephanie Missert contributed to this article.