The House yesterday adopted the first major water resources bill in nearly a decade, approving more than 200 new dam, harbor, flood-control and canal projects, and for the first time requiring localities to pay part of the cost.
The measure, approved 358 to 60, was sent to the Senate, where legislation containing tougher local cost-sharing provisions is pending.
Congress has not enacted a major water bill since 1976. A measure as comprehensive as the one the House passed yesterday was last enacted in 1970. Past efforts have foundered primarily on the issue of local cost-sharing.
The House-passed measure, which took four years to draft, was at least a partial victory for the Reagan administration and environmental groups, which for years have demanded that Congress force localities to contribute to the cost of new projects. Currently, the federal government shoulders the cost of most projects.
President Reagan nonetheless has threatened to veto the House bill because of its price tag of $13 billion to $20 billion over 13 years and the large number of "dubious" projects included in it, according to a memo by the Office of Management and Budget.
A statement last week by the private Environmental Policy Institute also criticized the measure as being stocked full of "cats and dogs," unnecessary projects.
House critics of past water bills generally supported the current measure, saying it embodied important changes in philosophy, especially the cost-sharing provisions and the funneling of more dollars to rehabilitate older water systems in the Northeast and the Midwest.
"It's not a perfect bill," said Rep. Bob Edgar (D-Pa.), a leading opponent of other water measures who supported this bill. "One of the flaws is, the shopping list is too large." But, he noted, that is what enabled the bill to pass.
Edgar and environmental groups were upset that the House voted 296 to 124 to exempt communities in the lower Mississippi Valley from the bill's cost-sharing provisions.
Southern lawmakers, led by Appropriations Committee Chairman Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.), argued that the Mississippi drains more than 40 percent of the nation's water and that local communities should not have to bear the cost of projects needed to control those waters.
Public Works Committee Chairman James J. Howard (D-N.J.) defended the measure against charges of "pork-barrel" politics, saying the long list of projects authorized in the bill are needed to prevent flooding, dredge harbors and rehabilitate aging locks on inland waterways.
"Over the past 15 years a very large backlog of vitally needed water resources projects has accumulated," Howard said. "While the total number of projects in the bill appears large, it must be remembered that they represent well over a decade of detailed planning and study . . . and will form the basis of the nation's water resources program for the rest of the century."
In addition to 230 new water projects, the bill would authorize funding for improvements to, or extensions of, 150 existing projects.
Rep. Robert A. Roe (D-N.J.), chairman of the Public Works water subcommittee, praised the bill as fiscally responsible, sensitive to environmental issues and responsive to all segments of the country.
The third point was backed up during debate as one lawmaker after another rose to praise the Public Works Committee for authorizing water projects in their congressional districts.
In addition to the cost-sharing provisions, which would require local interests to pay anywhere from 10 to 50 percent, depending on the type of project, the bill would impose a new tax on cargo moving through U.S. ports to help with harbor maintenance costs.