Senate approves bill for water projects; millions for Trinity River Vision project

Trinity River Vision

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate approved a $10 billion water projects bill Thursday that includes emergency funding for Flint, Michigan — nearly a year after officials declared a public health emergency because of lead-contaminated water. It also includes over $500 million for the Trinity River Vision project in Fort Worth, along with several other projects in Texas.

Senators approved the bill 95-3. Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz voted for the bill. The measure now goes to the House, where approval of a similar bill — minus the Flint provision — is expected as soon as next week. The bills will then have to be worked out in conference committee.

The Senate measure would authorize 29 projects in 18 states for dredging, flood control and other projects overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

For Fort Worth and North Texas, the inclusion of the Trinity River Vision project will relieve many supporters who worried the plan would get sidelined by a more spending-cautious, earmark-eschewing Congress. But unlike most issues in Washington, D.C., water project bills exist in a nostalgic island of bipartisanship. That’s particularly true when both parties can take leadership roles in a high-profile, media-friendly issue like the Flint water crisis.

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The Trinity River Vision project, estimated to cost $909.9 million total, is a plan that will divert the Trinity River near downtown Fort Worth, create an urban lake, create about 12 miles of new development along the waterfront and open up the area just north of downtown for redevelopment. The city, the county and the state are also contributing funds for the project. Currently, three bridges are under construction for the project.

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, has been the primary mover behind the project.

But the project has garnered support across party lines.

“The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) is a critical piece of legislation that funds water infrastructure projects in the DFW Metroplex and around the country,” said Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth. “I was pleased to hear that the Senate passed their $9 billion bipartisan bill which would help fund the Dallas Trinity River Corridor Project, the Fort Worth Trinity River Vision project, and provides 280 million dollars to assist Flint, Michigan in their water crisis

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“It is now up to House Republicans to replicate the Senate’s spirit of bipartisan cooperation to pass the funding that not only addresses our nation’s dredging and flood control projects, but also includes long overdue funding to address the Flint water crisis,” he said.

The bipartisan bill includes $100 million in grants and loans to replace lead-contaminated pipes in Flint and other cities with lead emergencies, as well as $50 million to test water for lead in schools and $70 million for water infrastructure loans.

Michigan’s Democratic senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, welcomed the Flint measure, but said it comes months too late, with city residents still using bottled water.

“The people of Flint have waited way too long” for help from the state and federal governments, Stabenow said. “This should never have happened. And we know it happened because of decisions made — bad decisions — at the state level.”

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Flint’s drinking water became tainted when the city switched from the Detroit water system and began drawing from the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. The impoverished city was under state control at the time.

Regulators failed to ensure the water was treated properly and lead from aging pipes leached into the water supply. Elevated lead levels have been found in at least 325 people, including 221 children. Lead contamination has been linked to learning disabilities and other problems.

Senators have twice reached a bipartisan deal to help Flint but were blocked after Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, objected. Lee voted against the bill, saying it increases spending without offsetting budget cuts.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the water-projects bill was crucial, not just for Flint but for the rest of the nation.

Among other projects, the bill would authorize $1.9 billion to help restore Florida’s Everglades and combat algae blooms that have fouled the state’s beaches and rivers. It also would bolster flood-prevention projects in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where torrential rains last month damaged more than 84,000 homes in the state, many in the Baton Rouge area.

The bill would continue a project to deepen Charleston Harbor in South Carolina; speed up reimbursements to tribal, local and state governments for costs incurred in a toxic-waste spill at Colorado’s Gold King Mine; and continue a project to improve Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada.

“We can no longer use a fix-as-it fails approach to America’s flood protection,” Inhofe said. “It’s not just about economic losses communities face after a devastating flood. It’s about the loss of human life. Not acting is not an option.”

The measure includes language about dredging in Long Island Sound, an issue that has divided Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and fellow Democrats in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The dispute involves dredging planned near a submarine base outside New London, Connecticut, to make room for the Navy’s newest Virginia-class submarines. Gillibrand and other New York officials fear the project could violate the state’s stringent water quality standards.

Gillibrand secured language in the bill aimed at blocking any disposal that violates water quality standards. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and other lawmakers tried to block the provision or amend it to apply only to standards in the state where the disposal occurs.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday that Republicans “would like to get a (water projects) bill done” by the end of the year. Ryan called approval of the bill “a good practice to have. And so that’s something that is definitely within the realm of possibilities.” – Robert Francis, FWBP Editor, contributed to this report.