WASHINGTON — A $12.3 billion water resources bill sailed through the House on Tuesday with lawmakers saying it will benefit commercial barge transportation along the Arkansas River.
The Water Resources Reform and Development Act passed on a 412-4 vote and now heads to the Senate, where final passage is expected later this week.
“Today the House passed legislation that ensures Arkansas waterways remain open for business, while saving taxpayers money and increasing efficiency,” said Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle.
Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, explained that the bill should speed maintenance, repairs and needed improvements to the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System that have been delayed because of backlogs within the Army Corps of Engineers.
“And, it does so in a fiscally responsible way that contains no earmarks, saves taxpayer dollars and increases accountability and efficiency. I am proud to support it,” Womack said.
The legislation is a bipartisan, bicameral compromise on bills that cleared the House and Senate separately last year. The entire Arkansas delegation supports it.
“I believe the reforms contained in the conference report will ensure that our nation’s waterways will remain up to date as well as maintain our nation’s position as a leader in global commerce and trade,” said Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro.
Fiscal conservatives — including Heritage Action and Taxpayers for Commonsense — oppose the bill, saying it falls far short of reforms needed to rein in excess spending. They worry that Congress has set up a new “earmark” scheme in which local authorities submit projects that Congress will feel compelled to approve.
The legislation, however, has strong support from agriculture.
“The ports, channels, locks, dams and other infrastructure that support our waterways transportation are vital to America’s ability to provide affordable agriculture products at home and abroad,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, said that Arkansas has 1,860 miles of inland waterways that contribute $1.2 billion to the state’s economy.
“This is the first time in history that a major water resources infrastructure bill contains no earmarks whatsoever, and I support this bill to strengthen America’s competitiveness and grow jobs here at home,” he said.
The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System is the major waterways thoroughfare in Arkansas — allowing goods to travel southeast from Tulsa, Okla., to the Mississippi River and beyond.
Aside from maintaining locks and dams along the river, proponents of the McClellan-Kerr are hoping to have it dredged deeper to allow for larger barges.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville, served on the conference committee that negotiated the final version of the bill. Both supported efforts to ensure Oklahoma’s inland waterways remain viable means of transportation.
Mullin spoke on the House floor Tuesday in defense of the bill.
“This legislation with zero earmarks takes a historical step in supporting the nation’s waterway system while making critical policy reforms,” he said. “This bill does exactly what I came to Congress to do. It cuts red tape, reduces burdensome bureaucracy, increases transparency and — most importantly — strengthens our economy.”
The four House members who voted against the bill were: Reps. Justin Amash, R-Mich., Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, Tim Huelskamp, R-Neb., and Matt Salmon, R-Ariz.
Among other provisions, the bill would:
— Establish an advisory committee to make recommendations to the Corps aimed at making the McClellan-Kerr more efficient and reliable.
— Enable Beaver Lake and the Arkansas Waterways Commission to seek detailed accounting of all federal expenses related to a water resource project.
— Allow local and state authorities to expedite studies and projects using their own funds.
— Provide small, rural communities with more flexibility in developing water management strategies.
— Allow the Corps to enter into cooperative agreements — such as Friends of Lake Ouachita — to maintain recreational facilities.
— Exempts on-farm oil storage facilities of 6,000 gallons or less from new EPA regulations.
— And, allows rural water projects — such as the Grand Prairie and Bayou Meto agricultural irrigation projects — to qualify for long-term, low-interest loans.