By Curtis Tate
McClatchy Washington Bureau
Published: Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013 – 5:05 pm
WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives voted 417-3 Wednesday to approve a bill authorizing a broad array of water-related infrastructure projects across the country, including the completion of levee improvements to protect Sacramento from a catastrophic flood.
The Water Resources, Reform and Development Act aims to shorten the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers review process, which critics say delays projects such as the Natomas Levee Improvement Program and increases the cost to taxpayers.
The bill authorizes work on the nearly $1 billion federal share of the $1.4 billion project. Local funds have completed close to half of the 42-mile levee system, designed to protect California’s capital from a 200-year flood.
Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., who has spent five years trying to get a bill through the House to protect California’s flood-prone capital, called Wednesday’s vote “a long time coming.”
“We hoped we would get it done sooner rather than later,” she said just before the final tally came in.
The Senate approved its version of the bill with a bipartisan vote in May after a push by Sen. Barbara Boxer. The California Democrat is the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which drafted the Senate bill.
Matsui said she hoped that the two chambers would to move quickly to reconcile their versions and get it to President Barack Obama’s desk by year’s end.
With the drama of the government shutdown and debt limit over, at least for now, the bill presented an opportunity for lawmakers in both parties to come together on major legislation.
Congress last passed a water infrastructure bill in 2007 with overwhelming bipartisan support. In May, the Senate approved its version on an 83-14 vote. Last month, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed it unanimously.
House leaders Wednesday hailed its reforms, which include an expedited project approval process aimed at clearing a $60 billion backlog of corps projects. The bill would limit corps studies to three years and $3 million. It de-authorizes $12 billion in projects that have languished for years.
The bill also contains no earmarks, or pet projects in lawmakers’ home states or districts. The last bill had hundreds.
But fiscally conservative groups such as Taxpayers for Common Sense and Heritage Action warned that the legislation would give too much authority to the corps and hide pork barrel spending in other ways. Environmental groups such as the National Wildlife Federation said the bill would weaken longstanding environmental protections.
The White House said in a statement that Obama supports the House bill, but expressed concern that it would authorize marginal projects, shift too much cost to taxpayers and undermine the environmental review process.