Water Resource Issues in the 109th Congress
Water Resource Issues in the 110 Congress
Betsy A. Cody
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
H. Steven Hughes
Analyst in Environmental and Natural Resources Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Water resources management often involves trade-offs among user groups,
environmental interests, and local, regional, and national interests. Water resources
development is particularly controversial because of budgetary constraints, conflicting
policy objectives, environmental impacts, and demands for local control. Hurricane
Katrina brought to the forefront long-simmering policy disputes involving local control,
federal financing, environmental and social tradeoffs, and multi-level accountability and
responsibility for water infrastructure projects, such as levees. Construction,
improvement, and management of other federal water resource projects (e.g., locks,
dams, and diversion facilities) face similar challenges.
The 110th Congress faces numerous issues and trade-offs as it considers water
resource development, technology, water supply, and climate change legislation. These
issues are likely to arise as Congress considers authorizations and appropriations for
Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers projects (e.g., Water Resources
Development Act of 2007, H.R. 1495), and agency policy and program changes (e.g.,
water reuse, federal project operations, and oversight of ecosystem restoration programs
such as CALFED and Everglades). Oversight issues related to Hurricane Katrina and
the federal role in hurricane and flood protection, and levee construction and
management, also are ongoing.
The federal government has a long history of involvement in water resource
development and management to facilitate water-borne transportation, expand irrigated
agriculture, reduce flood losses, and, more recently, restore aquatic ecosystems.
Increasing pressures on the quality and quantity of available water supplies — due to
growing population, environmental regulation, in-stream species and ecosystem needs,
water source contamination, agricultural water demand, climate variability, and changing
public interests — have resulted in heightened water use conflicts throughout the country,
particularly in the West.
Federal water resource construction waned during the last decades of the 20th century
in response to fiscal constraints, interest in more local control of water and land resources,
and requirements to assess environmental impacts of federal actions and to protect fish
and wildlife. This marked the end of expansionist federal policies of the early 20th century
that had led to widespread federal investment in dams, navigation locks, irrigation
diversions, and levees and basin-wide planning and development efforts.
The 110th Congress is faced with numerous water resource issues regarding the
federal role in the planning, construction, maintenance, inspection, and financing of water
resource projects and federal investment in water resources research and data collection.
Congress makes these decisions within the context of multiple and often conflicting laws
and objectives, competing legal decisions, and entrenched institutional mechanisms,
including century-old water rights and long-standing contractual obligations. Although
most water resource legislation typically addresses site-specific needs, certain themes and
issues appear in many local and regional water resources conflicts. For example, demand
for new project services (e.g., improved navigation, new water supply, improved or new
flood control facilities), protection of threatened and endangered species, and water
quality concerns are common to many conflicts.
Even so, most water resource legislation deals with specific sites. The 110th
Congress is considering site-specific restoration legislation for coastal Louisiana, the
Upper Mississippi River-Illinois Waterway System, the Great Lakes, the San Joaquin
River, and the Platte River. However, the more typical site-specific measures, on a
smaller scale, are the hundreds of individual water resources projects authorized through
Water Resources Development Acts (WRDAs) and stand-alone bills addressing new
water supply technologies and augmentation of existing water supplies, rural water supply
development, and Indian water rights settlements. Oversight of existing laws and projects
(e.g., Central Valley Project, flood protection in New Orleans and Sacramento) and
project operations is also expected, especially where court decisions, agency actions, or
other circumstances (such as drought) may affect project operations (e.g., federal projects
on the Colorado, Columbia, Klamath, Missouri, Rio Grande, and San Joaquin rivers and
pumps in the California Bay-Delta).
In the West, naturally scarce water supplies and increasing urban populations have
spawned new debates over water allocation — particularly over water for threatened or
endangered species — and have increased federal-state tensions, since the federal
government has generally deferred to state primacy in intrastate water allocation.
Observed changes in the timing of snowmelt and runoff and the potential for further
climate variability due to climate change has increased concerns about the reliability of
developed water supplies and the flexibility of existing management mechanisms.
Western water legislation during the 110th Congress centers on project management
and program issues, such as San Joaquin River settlement legislation, the Bureau of
Reclamation’s Title 16 water reclamation and recycling program, and sustainability of the
West’s water supplies. Oversight of the Bureau’s Central Valley Project (CVPIA, Trinity
River, and CALFED and other San Francisco Bay-San Joaquin/Sacramento Rivers Delta
[Bay-Delta] management issues), Klamath project, and Colorado River operations also
Nationally, congressional attention during the 110th Congress may focus on the
federal role in levee construction, maintenance, and evaluation, and water resources
management generally.1 Hurricane Katrina oversight issues — such as how to better
coordinate federal activities and how to respond or rebuild in the wake of catastrophic
damages — may be of particular focus, as might the examination of other areas of the
country that may also be vulnerable. Also of concern nationwide is the status of
threatened and endangered species and the health of the nation’s rivers and riparian areas.
Federal obligations to protect threatened and endangered species and other environmental
quality requirements have resulted in increased attention to river and watershed
restoration efforts. The federal government is involved in several significant restoration
initiatives ranging from the Florida Everglades to the California Bay-Delta (CALFED).2
At the same time, the demand for traditional or new water supply projects,
navigational improvements, flood control projects, and beach and shoreline protection
continues. In fact, both the Everglades and Bay-Delta restoration efforts include
significant water supply components. Controversy over how much water should be
divided among recovering (threatened and endangered) species, protecting water quality,
and supplying farms, cities, and other uses has been ongoing. Further, widespread
drought throughout different parts of the country over the past several years has spurred
new requests for developing and ensuring dwindling water supplies, and new security
threats to water infrastructure have placed added pressures on budgetary resources. The
109th Congress left pending several national water policy proposals, ranging from new
water study commissions and assessments to global sanitation and drinking water aid,
some of which have been reintroduced in the 110th Congress.
The 110th Congress also has addressed water resource issues during consideration
of individual project authorizations, as well as during debate on WRDA legislation (H.R.
1495) and on FY2008 appropriations for the Bureau and the Corps. Specific issues that
are being or may be discussed during the 110th Congress are treated below. Other general
issues also being discussed include federal reserved water rights in relation to federal
lands, transfer of water across federal lands and through federal facilities, Indian water
rights settlements, licensing of nonfederal hydropower facilities (i.e., private dams
regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)), and whether to
establish a national water commission to address federal water policy and coordination.
1 For example, the Senate version of WRDA 2007 includes provisions establishing a National
Levee Safety Program and requiring independent safety assurance reviews of Corps flood damage
reduction projects, like those in New Orleans.
2 For more information on federal involvement in Everglades restoration, see CRS Report
RS20702, South Florida Ecosystem Restoration and the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration
Plan, by Pervaze A. Sheikh and Nicole T. Carter. For information on Bay-Delta issues, see CRS
Report RL33565, Western Water Resource Issues, by Pervaze A. Sheikh and Betsy A. Cody.
Water Resource Projects
Most of the large dams and water diversion structures in the United States were built
by, or with the assistance of, the Bureau of Reclamation in the Department of the Interior
(Bureau) or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Department of Defense (Corps).
Traditionally, Bureau projects were designed principally to provide reliable supplies of
water for irrigation and some municipal and industrial uses; Corps projects were designed
principally for flood control, navigation, and power generation. The Bureau currently
manages hundreds of storage reservoirs and diversion dams in 17 western states,3
providing water to approximately 9 million acres of farmland and 31 million people. The
Corps’ operations are much more widespread and diverse, and include several thousand
flood control and navigation projects throughout the country, including 25,000 miles of
waterways (with 238 navigation locks), nearly 1,000 harbors, and 400 dam and reservoir
projects (with 75 hydroelectric plants).
Bureau of Reclamation. Since the early 1900s, the Bureau has constructed and
operated many large, multi-purpose water projects. Water supplies from these projects
have been primarily for irrigation. Construction authorizations slowed during the 1970s
and 1980s due to several factors. In 1987, the Bureau announced a new mission:
environmentally sensitive water resources management. In the following decade,
increased population, prolonged drought, fiscal constraints, and increased water demands
for fish and wildlife, recreation, and scenic enjoyment resulted in increased pressure to
alter operation of many Bureau projects. Such changes have been controversial, however,
as water rights, contractual obligations, and the potential economic effects of altering
project operations complicate any change in water allocation or project operations.
In contrast to the Corps, there is no tradition of a regularly scheduled authorization
vehicle for Bureau projects. Instead, Bureau projects are generally considered
individually.4 Bureau-related water project and management issues that are underth
consideration or may be considered during the 110 Congress include:
!San Joaquin River restoration settlement legislation;
!examination of the Bureau’s Title 16 (recycling and reuse) program;
!oversight of CVPIA and CVP operations;
!oversight of, and appropriations for, CALFED (and other Bay-Delta
issues, such as Delta Smelt population declines);
!San Joaquin/San Luis Unit drainage issues and potential title transfer;
!authorization of individual water recycling and desalination projects;
!response to drought, and effects of climate variability on federal
!Colorado River water management issues.
3 Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North
Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
4 However, Congress occasionally passes omnibus bills addressing key Bureau policy changes,
as well as new or revised project and program authorizations, the latest being the Reclamation
Projects Authorization and Adjustment Act of 1992 (P.L. 102-575).
A broader issue that often receives attention from Congress is oversight of the
Bureau’s mission and its future role in western water supply and water resource
management generally. As public demands and concerns have changed, so has legislation
affecting the Bureau. Further, many in Congress have questioned the Bureau’s shift in
focus from a water resources development agency to a water resource management
agency. Some have also questioned the increasing number of proposals to fund new rural
water supply projects with high federal cost-share ratios and grants for reclaiming and
Critical questions Congress may address include: What should be the future federal
role in water resources development and management? What do western water managers
need from the Bureau and how can the Bureau help with western water management?
Should (or to what extent should) the federal government develop or augment new supply
systems designed primarily to serve communities/municipalities, or is this a local/regional
responsibility? Who should pay, and how much? Should the Bureau be involved in
environmental mitigation or is this best handled through new institutional arrangements
(e.g., CALFED) or other existing agencies (e.g., Fish and Wildlife Service and/or the
Environmental Protection Agency)? Should existing projects be revamped or “re-
operated” to accommodate changing demands, and, if so, do new policies and institutions
(state-federal roles) need to be addressed, and again, who should pay? Relatedly, the
issue of whether there should be a National Water Commission or periodic water resource
assessments received some attention in the 109th Congress, and at least one bill has been
reintroduced in the 110th Congress.
Corps of Engineers. Congress authorizes Corps water resources activities and
makes changes to the agency’s policies generally in Water Resources Development Acts,
and at times in the annual Energy and Water Development Appropriations acts. Contents
of a WRDA are cumulative and new acts do not supersede or replace previous acts. From
the late 1980s until 2002, WRDAs followed a loosely biennial cycle; the last WRDA was
enacted in 2000. WRDA bills were introduced or considered in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005,
and 2006, but were not enacted. Their enactment was complicated by differences over
whether to authorize controversial projects, and whether to reform or change the way the
Corps plans and evaluates projects.
Consideration of WRDA 2007 bills by the 110th Congress has included debates on
changes to state and local roles in projects, potential changes in Corps policies and
practices (such as changes to Corps permitting and regulatory practices), and authorization
of high-profile projects. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the project authorizations receiving
the most attention were coastal Louisiana wetlands restoration, lock expansion and
ecosystem restoration for the Upper Mississippi River-Illinois Waterway, and
Everglades-related projects. The 2005 hurricane season added other authorizations to the
debate, including authorizations for near-term and long-term hurricane protection
measures for Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states and flood control activities in other
areas of the nation vulnerable to flooding. Hurricane Katrina increased interest in flood
control and Louisiana projects in the bill, while also increasing interest in streamlining
federal spending, which has some observers concerned about authorizing more Corps
projects. For more information on current WRDA issues, see CRS Report RL33504,
Water Resources Development Act (WRDA): Corps of Engineers Project Authorization
Issues, coordinated by Nicole T. Carter.
The 110th Congress continues to address issues related to the Administration’s
adoption of a performance-based budgeting approach for the agency, as well as safety and
security of Corps facilities and implementation of Florida Everglades ecosystem
restoration. Recent Congresses have expressed dissatisfaction with the Corps’ financial
management, particularly the reprogramming of funds across projects and the use of
multiyear continuing contracts for projects. Corps flood control and hurricane protection
projects, in particular, are receiving congressional and public scrutiny following Hurricane
Katrina. This scrutiny is added to the attention already on the Corps’ river and reservoir
management; in many cases, Corps facilities and their operation are central to debates
over multi-purpose river management. For example, water resources management by the
Corps, particularly on the Mississippi, Missouri, and Columbia and Snake Rivers system,
remains controversial and is frequently challenged in the courts. The Corps’ projects and
role in emergency response also may be the subject of congressional oversight, legislative
direction, authorizing legislation, and appropriations.
Water resources debates in the 110th Congress likely will be dominated by different
opinions of the desirability and need for changing the water resource agencies’ policies,
practices, and accountability, and for authorizing multi-billion dollar investments in
ecosystem restoration, navigation, and flood and storm damage reduction measures. A
broad water resource issue significant to the water resources agencies and the nation is the
changing federal role in water resources planning, development, and management.
Hurricane Katrina raised questions about this role; in particular, the disaster brought
attention to the trade-offs in benefits, costs, and risks of the current division of
responsibilities among local, state, and federal entities for flood mitigation, preparedness,
response, and recovery. The question of the federal role also is raised by the increasing
competition over water supplies, not only in the West but also for urban centers in the
East (e.g., Atlanta), which has resulted in a growing number of communities seeking
financial and other federal assistance, actions, and permits related to water supply
development (e.g., desalination and water reuse projects, reservoir expansions and
reoperations). Congress rarely chooses to pursue broad legislation on federal water
resources policies for many reasons, including the challenge of enacting changes that
affect such a wide breadth of constituencies. Another practical challenge is the fractured
nature of congressional committee jurisdictions over water resources and water quality
issues and activities. Consequently, Congress traditionally has pursued incremental
changes through WRDA bills for the Corps and project-specific legislation for the
Bureau, and this pattern seems likely to continue.