President signs bill lowering NMI cost-share for Army Corps projects

Jun 10, 2014

The Northern Marianas will pay a smaller local share for Army Corps projects in the islands as a result of President Obama’s signing of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act today. The new law contains a provision added by Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan that requires the Corps to increase a waiver of the local cost-share to adjust for inflation over the last three decades. The old waiver was $200,000; the new waiver is estimated to be at least $400,000.

“The waiver of the first $200,000 of the local cost for Army Corps projects was set in 1986,” Sablan said. “I thought we were long overdue to adjust that number to account for inflation.

“I am very appreciative that Chairman Bill Shuster, who authored the bill, and his Democratic counterpart on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Nick Rahall agreed and added my provision.

“What this means for the Northern Marianas is that Army Corps projects will now be able to move forward without the Commonwealth first having to come up with $400,000 of local funds.”

The precise dollar amount of the new waiver has to be calculated by the Army Corps of Engineers using economic data on the rate of inflation over the last 28 years. Sablan’s office has already been in touch with the Corps. “We asked them to start thinking about it,” Sablan explained. “Although, of course, nothing official could happen until the President actually signed the bill into law.

“This should be a fairly straightforward calculation. And we would like see the new, higher waiver amount available soon so that projects move forward based on the lowered local cost.”

Army Corps projects in development for the Northern Marianas include the Saipan Lagoon Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration project, which is designed to improve water quality and the reef habitat of near-shore areas of the lagoon by containing run-off.

“With our tourism economy on the upswing it is time to refocus attention on maintaining the quality of the environment that visitors come here to enjoy,” the Congressman said. “Unfiltered run-off can lead to beach closures and can kill the fish and coral reefs that are important both to tourists and to residents.”

In fiscal 2011 Sablan sought a special congressional appropriation, or “earmark,” of $250,000 for the lagoon restoration. But the incoming Republican majority in the House of Representatives banned earmarking before Sablan’s request could be funded.

“In a sense we have gotten around that earmark ban by reducing the local cost of the lagoon restoration by at least $200,000,” Sablan remarked.

“And that earmark would have been a one-time benefit, whereas the change in the local cost-share that the President signed today is a gift that will keep giving every time the Army Corps of Engineers does a project in our islands.

“So in the end we got a much better deal.”

Other recent Army Corps projects in the NMI have included improvements to the Rota Harbor completed in 2008 and the on-going Susupe-Chalan Kanoa Drainage Plan to fix flooding in those two villages.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act took a torturous path to enactment. The Senate passed its version of the bill in May 2013 and the House passed its version five months later. Then the bills sat, waiting for appointment of conference committee members to work out differences.

In November 2013, Sablan joined 29 colleagues from both sides of the aisle in a letter urging Speaker John Boehner and Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi to appoint conferees, which the two party leaders soon did. But it took another six months for the conference committee to find common ground and file their final version of the bill, H.R. 3080. The House approved that bipartisan agreement by a vote of 412-4 on May 20 of this year; the Senate followed two days later with a vote of 91-7; and the bill became law today with the President’s signature of approval.

It has been seven years since the last water resources bill was enacted.