On Tuesday, October 23, the President signed into law an act authorizing programs to improve the nation’s water resources infrastructure. The America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 (AWIA 2018) includes both the Water Resources Development Act of 2018 (WRDA 2018) -- addressing flood control, navigation, environmental protection, and other projects carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) -- as well as provisions related to drinking water systems, hydropower, and other water infrastructure. AWIA 2018 authorizes activities for three projects affecting the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) region: increased federal cost share for operations and maintenance of the potential Brandon Road Dam project in Joliet to address invasive species, advancement of a project to restore the ecosystem at Bubbly Creek in Chicago, and a study of the Great Lakes as a whole.
This Policy Update discusses AWIA 2018’s potential impact on northeastern Illinois’ water resources, which play an essential role in regional prosperity, health, and quality of life. The update also assesses how the Act would affect the implementation of water resources recommendations in the region’s recently adopted ON TO 2050 comprehensive plan. The Act requires increased local participation in USACE activities, offering greater opportunity for local governments to weigh in on important water projects in their communities. It also continues and expands important programs to provide infrastructure for safe drinking water, but it could be strengthened with a greater emphasis on resilience in the face of a changing climate.
Northeastern Illinois USACE projects
Water Resources Development Acts (WRDA) typically provide policy direction and authorize new USACE site-specific activities. These projects and activities are then eligible to be funded in annual appropriations bills, though this funding is not guaranteed. The reauthorization cycle has recently returned to a roughly biennial process (with prior bills enacted in 2016 and 2014) after just one WRDA bill was passed between 2000 and 2014 (WRDA 2007). Major projects undertaken in northeastern Illinois authorized in past WRDA bills include the McCook Reservoir, Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal Dispersal Barrier, and Lockport Lock and Dam Rehabilitation.
WRDA 2018’s authorizations in the CMAP region are related to the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study (GLMRIS), the South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River (commonly known as Bubbly Creek), and the Great Lakes as a whole. GLMRIS is intended to study options available to prevent aquatic movement of invasive species (such as Asian carp) between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basin. An August 2017 USACE draft report identified a number of measures to be taken at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam in Joliet, including an electric barrier, water jets, noise, an engineered channel, a flushing lock, and nonstructural measures. In comments on the draft report, the State of Illinois noted its support of the desired benefits of the project, but raised concerns with many aspects of the proposed plan. A final report is pending, as is identification of construction funding. However, WRDA 2018 increases the federal share for ongoing operations and maintenance of the project once constructed. The GLMRIS draft report estimated operations and maintenance costs of about $8 million annually with a federal share of just a few percent, but WRDA 2018 authorizes the federal share to be 80 percent. ON TO 2050 calls for implementation of GLMRIS’ recommendations and Congressional investments that prevent invasive species transfer.
WRDA 2018 also addresses the Bubbly Creek project, requiring USACE to enter into an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) to facilitate ecosystem restoration activities. ON TO 2050 supports projects that address the unique challenges of Chicago area waterways, such as industrial pollution found at Bubbly Creek.
The Act also requires USACE to carry out a comprehensive assessment of the water resources needs of the Great Lakes System, in cooperation with parties involved in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). Founded in 2010, the GLRI coordinates activities and investments across numerous federal agencies with a goal to protect and restore the Great Lakes by improving fish and wildlife habitat, addressing invasive species, and cleaning up contamination. ON TO 2050 calls for support of GLRI and these efforts.
Increased local participation
WRDA 2018 includes a number of provisions intended to increase USACE’s engagement with stakeholders, including state and local governments. The Act requires USACE to provide greater opportunity for local communities to understand and participate in the project identification process. States and localities are also provided more chances to weigh in when USACE establishes implementation guidance for WRDA laws. This will improve transparency and efficiency, strengthen intergovernmental coordination, and allow local representatives to provide their unique perspective on water infrastructure projects in their community.
A different section of the Act requires U.S. EPA to establish a stormwater infrastructure funding task force -- including representatives from state and local governments -- to study and make recommendations for funding stormwater improvements. The task force is directed to consider how different sources of funding affect the affordability of the infrastructure to communities with differing financial capabilities. ON TO 2050 acknowledges that many communities in northeastern Illinois lack the resources to fund or finance vital infrastructure projects, and offers strategies to build local capacity. Likewise, the new stormwater task force has the opportunity to recommend solutions for these communities.
Drinking water funding and financing
AWIA 2018 also includes numerous provisions related to safe drinking water, including reauthorization of the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) and increases in authorized funding for a program that tests for lead in drinking water at schools and child care facilities. The DWSRF program is reauthorized for the first time in more than two decades, with authorized funding levels doubling to nearly $2 billion in 2021. Actual funding amounts will be specified in annual appropriations bills. Administered at the state level by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, this program provides low interest loans to localities for infrastructure improvements that deliver clean drinking water. The Act also extends for two years and increases authorized funding for the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program, a federal credit program that provides long-term, low cost loans for drinking water and clean water projects. Similar to state revolving loan programs but targeted to larger projects, WIFIA has not yet been used in Illinois. (U.S. EPA is hosting a WIFIA information session in Chicago on November 13, 2018.) ON TO 2050 notes the substantial funding needs for water infrastructure in the region and encourages community water suppliers to utilize these types of low interest loan programs.
While the passage of AWIA 2018 authorizes critical water resources projects and contains some improvements to existing policies, more can be done to ensure that our region’s water resources are properly addressed by federal policy and resilient in the face of rapid change. The Act requires studies of USACE economic and benefit-cost analysis methods, as well as how floodplains in urban areas can be addressed. This presents an opportunity to analyze and build projects that take into account the likelihood of stronger storms and more frequent flooding due to a changing climate, rather than basing analysis solely on past rainfall events. These studies also allow USACE to examine the benefits of being able to address flooding on roadways; currently, neither USACE nor transportation agencies have the purview to specifically address roadway flooding. ON TO 2050’s recommendations related to identifying flood risk and adapting vulnerable infrastructure to be responsive to weather events and climate change support this type of analysis.
Important USACE projects -- such as GLMRIS, Bubbly Creek, and others in the region being studied or underway -- will need future Congressional authorization and/or appropriations so their water quality improvements can be realized. CMAP will continue to monitor federal legislation and its effects on the ability of the region to implement ON TO 2050’s water resources recommendations to ensure economic prosperity, environmental and public health, and quality of life.