The U.S. Senate has passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (WRDA), which contains provisions to benefit fish and wildlife habitat and water quality in some of America’s most iconic places. The bipartisan bill would authorize more than $10 billion in water projects overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 18 states.
Notably, the legislation authorizes $1.9 billion for restoration projects in the Everglades, where critical steps for restoring natural flows and removing pollutants must be fast-tracked to reverse algae blooms and other conditions devastating South Florida’s fisheries.
“We are delighted to see key Everglades restoration projects advancing in the Water Resources Development Act,” says Dawn Shirreffs, senior Everglades policy advisor for the Everglades Foundation. “Authorization of the Central Everglades Planning Project is critical to removing barriers and restoring Everglades water flow, which can bring 67 billion gallons of water to improve habitat in Florida Bay. This is particularly important for spotted seatrout and snook, but also helps prevent future seagrass die-offs that affect the entire fishery.”
The Senate version of the bill also contains a provision that would emphasize the use of nature-based infrastructure, like wetlands, dunes, and reefs, over new man-made structures. Natural infrastructure provides for sustainable and cost-effective means of reducing flood and storm damage, improving water quality, and protecting vital fish and wildlife habitat in the process.
“As we’ve learned from recent storms and floods, nature is often our first and most effective line of defense against such natural disasters,” says Lynn Scarlett, The Nature Conservancy’s managing director for public policy. “The projects and policies included in this WRDA emphasize the important role nature can play to help meet the needs of people, communities, and public safety.”
More than a dozen groups—including the American Sportfishing Association, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, B.A.S.S., Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership—have been calling on Congress for support for “water resource development projects that consider natural and nature-based features” since June 2016.
The Senate version of WRDA also contains language to ensure that enhancing and sustaining fish and wildlife habitat connectivity is a robust part of the Army Corp’s mitigation planning process.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee reported out their version of the 2016 WRDA reauthorization, but the bill has not yet come to the House floor for final passage. The House bill does not currently contain funding for Everglades restoration or a push for natural infrastructure, but once passed, the process of reconciling the Senate and House bills can begin.
“With the clock ticking down to the end of the 114th Congress, the Water Resources Development Act remains amongst TRCP’s highest conservation priorities,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “With expiration of the current law set for 2017, it is critical for this Congress to send a WRDA bill to the president, so that we don’t have to start this process over again next year. Today’s action by the Senate, on a bill with many benefits for fish and wildlife habitat, is a great first step. Now, the House must act expeditiously.”