The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Water Resources Development Act Wednesday, authorizing 34 U.S. Corps of Engineers projects across the country.
It also contained provisions addressing three waterways that pass through Arkansas: the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System; the Ouachita and Black Rivers Navigation System; and the Sulphur River in the state's southwest corner.
The measure sprang from the water resources and environmental subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
It passed the full House on a voice vote.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Hot Springs Republican whose district includes portions of all three waterways, was the subcommittee's ranking member and the lead Republican negotiator.
"This is a good, common-sense bill," he said.
HR 7575 enjoyed broad bipartisan support, passing unanimously out of committee, Westerman said.
"It'll be refreshing to see something [approved] that's not partisan, which water infrastructure shouldn't be," Westerman said earlier this week. "Democrats and Republicans alike use infrastructure, whether it's water or highways or not. When we're looking at flood control and navigation and shipping in and out of courts, I can't really find a partisan angle to that."
In a floor speech Wednesday, Westerman said the legislation "creates jobs here at home and directly contributes to our economic growth and competitiveness."
The legislation addressed navigation, recreation, flood control and environmental concerns, as well as delayed maintenance projects at ports and harbors across the country.
"This bill will help keep projects in my home state of Arkansas that will spur economic development and prevent further environmental degradation," Westerman said. "It advances the long-stalled [McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System] deepening project, protects the water supply for the users of the Ouachita Black River Navigation Project and begins the process of preventing bank destabilization on the Sulphur River," he said.
Clears dredging barrier
An aide to Westerman said the bill clears a regulatory barrier to dredging the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System to a depth of 12 feet. "If money is ever appropriated by appropriators, they can immediately start working on it," he said.
The increased depth would allow bigger barges to travel the 445-mile-long system.
Congress authorized increasing the depth of the channel from 9 to 12 feet in 2004, later providing funding for studies of the project's economic and environmental feasibility.
Without the provision, officials would have to spend between three and five years repeating steps that had already been completed, the aide said.
The bill also expands the scope of the Ouachita-Black River Navigation Project to include not only river traffic but also water supply. The aim is to ensure that water remains available for local communities, regardless of the river's navigability.
Another provision authorizes a feasibility study for a ecosystem restoration project on the Sulphur River. The waterway has experienced heavy bank erosion in recent years.