Schumer Water Resources Bill Heads To President’s Desk

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer announced Thursday that the Senate has passed the Water Resources Reform & Development Act, which includes critical language that will require additional new funding be spent annually for dredging in the Great Lakes navigation system as well as funding for dam safety projects that will help more than 800 New York dams develop emergency action plans for the first time.

For the past year, Schumer has pushed members of the conference committee that were drafting the final bill language to include these provisions in the bill. Schumer explained that the inclusion of these two provisions is a major victory for all of Upstate New York because it will prioritize dredging projects in Buffalo, Rochester and Oswego over the long-term that will make those harbors easier to navigate, and it will help make dams – and the communities near them – safer.

WRRDA passed the House on May 20 with a 412-4 vote, and Thursday in the Senate with a 91-7 vote. The bill now heads to the president’s desk for his signature.

“There are a lot of great things for New York in the water resources bill, including additional funding to protect vulnerable dams and prioritization for much-needed Upstate port dredging projects,” said Schumer. “As a result of this legislation, many harbor dredging projects in Buffalo, Oswego and Rochester will now be able to get underway due to dedicated funding for the Great Lakes, and I will continue to push to make sure we get as much funding as possible in future years. In addition, hundreds of Upstate dams are vulnerable to flooding and this legislation will accelerate emergency action plans to protect nearby communities in the case of a breach. With the President’s signature, funding can flow for critical water infrastructure projects throughout New York.”

Great Lakes Funding

For the past year, Schumer has pushed members of the conference committee writing the final WRRDA bill language to balance the needs of high-use, deep-draft ports like the Port of NY/NJ, while also supporting the specific recognition of the unique and long underserved Great Lakes navigation system.

In November 2013, Schumer sent a letter signed by 12 of his Senate colleagues to the four members of the conference committee, urging them to prioritize the Great Lakes as part of their negotiations.

As a result of Schumer’s push, the language now included in the WRRDA bill will substantively recognize the Great Lakes as an interconnected commercial navigation system for the first time and prioritize not less than 10 percent of the new, additional revenues coming into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund annually for “projects that are a priority for navigation in the Great Lakes Navigation system.”

The bill will also allow the Great Lakes harbors to compete for another new 10 percent set-aside for “emerging ports and harbors.”

While total new funding for the Great Lakes cannot yet be calculated, under a hypothetical scenario where $100 million in new funding was allocated for harbor maintenance per year, it could mean the Great Lakes would receive an additional $10 million plus the ability to compete for an additional $10 million.

Each year, about 145 million tons of commodities are carried through the Great Lakes Navigation System.

The materials transported include fuel that powers homes and businesses, limestone and cement to construct roads and bridges, iron ore to produce steel, chemicals and other raw materials for manufacturers, and agricultural products to feed our nation and the world.

This mode of transport has both economic and environmental advantages compared to alternative transportation options, and supports about 130,000 jobs in the U.S. and generates over $18 billion in revenues.

The Great Lakes Navigation System is a vital component of our regional economic infrastructure. It generates 230,000 jobs, $14 billion in wages and more than $33 billion in business revenue in North America.

Great Lakes shipping provides energy-efficient transportation of raw materials that fuel important sectors of our economy, including steel production, power generation, construction and agriculture.

Despite the benefits the Great Lakes Navigation System provides, inadequate funding and maintenance has resulted in a tremendous backlog of dredging projects that have forced vessels to light load, has grounded vessels, impeded safe navigation, and closed harbors and threatened other harbors with closure.

To further exacerbate the problem, the water levels of a number of the Great Lakes have reached record lows in the last few years.

The impacts of the lack of dredging and other required maintenance, including lock improvements, breakwater repairs, and construction of dredged material disposal facilities, have economic consequences that hinder economic growth.

Schumer has long supported reforms to Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund expenditures that would authorize levels of spending more in line with the amount of revenue being collected from shippers using the navigation system.

The WRRDA bill will authorize hundreds of millions of dollars of additional maintenance spending over the next decade to bring expenditures more in line with revenues.

The Great Lakes prioritization language will insure that the Secretary of the Army, through the Chief of Engineers, prioritizes 10 percent of those new revenues for navigation projects in the Great Lakes.

While it is impossible at this point to know which harbors in the Great Lakes will be prioritized, the authorization is an important step in the fight to make sure additional funds are allocated to critical projects in this unique commercial navigation system. Schumer will now continue to fight to direct needed funding to maintenance dredging projects in New York’s Great Lakes harbors.

Dam Safety Funding

After Schumer’s push, WRRDA authorized the National Dam Safety Program, and authorized the following funding levels: $9.2M per year for the National Dam Safety Program; $1M per year in nationwide public awareness and outreach program; 1.45M per year in research funding; $750,000 per year in training assistance; and $500,000 for National Inventory of Dams.

Schumer explained that this program is important for Upstate New York because there are more than 1,100 dams Upstate that are considered “high” and “significant” hazards, and more than half do not have an emergency action plan (EAP) to protect local homes, businesses and human life should dam breakage and subsequent flooding occur.

Dams are a vital part of our nation’s aging infrastructure and provide enormous benefits to Upstate New Yorkers, including drinking water, flood protection, renewable hydroelectric power, navigation, irrigation, and recreation. Yet many of these hazardous dams are nearly a century old, and with the spring thaw fast-approaching, the risk to the surrounding community is too great to ignore.

WRRDA will boost federal funding for dam inspections and maintenance and stronger safety requirements through the reauthorization of the expired National Dam Safety Program.

Recent state regulations now require hazardous dams to develop EAPs in conjunction with state and local dam safety experts, and this plan will provide critical funding for those efforts. According to the National Inventory of Dams, the average dam in New York State is 60 years old and high hazard dams are an average 84 years old.

Because of their age and the potential for disaster, it is crucial that the high hazard dams receive proper monitoring and maintenance from regulatory authorities, and this legislation recognizes that the federal government plays a vital role in supporting the maintenance and inspection of dams by state and local governments across the U.S.

According to NID, New York State has approximately 5,700 dams.

Of these, there are about 403 “high hazard” dams in New York – dams that would cause significant loss of life and/or significant damage to surrounding properties if they failed – and 748 “significant hazard” dams – dams where failure or misoperation results in no probable loss of human life but can cause economic loss, environment damage, disruption of lifeline facilities, or impact other concerns.

What’s more, 802 dams in Upstate New York do not have Emergency Action Plans in place. An Emergency Action Plan for a dam is an official document that establishes procedures to minimize loss of life and property damage in the event of a dam failure.

An EAP usually contains a general description of the dam through the use of maps indicating areas susceptible to flooding, a list of potential emergency conditions that could trigger a dam failure and a description of necessary preventive maintenance.

An EAP also details preplanned actions to be taken in the event of a dam failure by providing implementation procedures for the plan, notification flowcharts to identify all agencies and jurisdictions involved in the EAP and who must be notified during emergencies, and listing the supplies and resources available when responding to a dam failure.