The U.S. House passage of a water authorization bill got high praise from elected officials and others Thursday, with Gov. Nathan Deal calling it a “breakthrough moment” in the effort to deepen the Savannah Harbor.
Wednesday’s 417-3 vote to pass the Water Resources Reform and Development Act “is another step toward getting the federal portion of the cost,” he said in a prepared statement.
“In addition to authorizing the project, the bill could allow Georgia to begin using the money it has put aside for the deepening; that is a critical victory for Georgia as we race to get ready for the much larger ships that will soon sail through an enlarged Panama Canal.
“I am grateful to the members of the Georgia delegation in the House and Senate for their role in developing this landmark legislation and fostering Georgia’s economic growth. Georgians have waited on this day for a long time. The hurdles ahead of us are much shorter than those that are now behind us.”
The bill authorizes $662 million for the dredging project, which includes both the state and federal portions. To date, Georgia has put aside $231 million for the project.
Overall, the bill allocates $8.2 billion for dams, harbors, river navigation and other water projects for the coming decade.
It also asserts that governors, not Congress, should negotiate interstate water disputes.
“As governor of Georgia, which has negotiated in good faith on interstate water discussions, I strongly endorse the ‘sense of Congress’ on how to handle interstate water disputes. These decisions belong in state capitols, not in Washington and not in court,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, agreed with that point.
“The federal government has no business dictating the terms or putting language into this bill that would affect the water wars,” he said.
Georgia, Alabama and Florida have been embroiled in a 20-year legal dispute over water usage in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin. Much of the debate has centered over Lake Lanier, which serves as a primary drinking water source for metro Atlanta.
Florida filed a legal action Oct. 1 in the U.S. Supreme Court alleging Georgia’s “overconsumption” of water in the ACF harmed Apalachicola Bay, battering its seafood industry.
“The only ‘unmitigated consumption’ going on around here is Florida’s waste of our tax dollars on a frivolous lawsuit,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said at the time.
Business groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, had pressured lawmakers to vote for the bill and highlighted its potential to create jobs. The chamber distributed state-by-state fact sheets and made the measure a “key vote” when it determines which lawmakers to support in next year’s election.
Earlier this week, Kit Dunlap, president and CEO of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, lauded the key vote, referring to the harbor project.
“It (affects) poultry, automotive suppliers and I don’t know what all that goes through the port,” she said.
The bill touches virtually every aspect of U.S. waterways. The legislation will allow work to advance on 23 shipping channel, flood management and other water projects that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has already studied, although actual money for the work will have to be provided in future legislation.
Among other projects, the bill gives the go-ahead to a more than $800 million flood protection project in Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn.; a $461 million expansion of the Savannah, Ga., port; and up to $43 million for the San Clemente, Calif., shoreline. The measure increases the share of federal dollars for the Olmsted Lock and Dam project on the border between Illinois and Kentucky.
Some Democrats, the White House and environmental groups objected to the speedier environmental reviews included in the bill, saying they would weaken environmental protections.
But Democrats and the Obama administration said they would support the bill anyway and would hope for changes to the language when House and Senate bargainers try to put a compromise version together later. The Senate passed its version of the water bill in May with a broad, bipartisan vote.
The bills need to be reconciled before one can be sent to President Barack Obama.
Collins said he hopes the bill will be mostly intact when it reaches Obama’s desk.
“I saw some good comments from the administration and others,” he said. “They have their concerns on various issues, but I think we’re a lot closer and ... we’ve at least got a good framework to go into conference with. I’m hopeful we can get that passed out fairly quickly.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.