Chairman Carper’s Opening Statement: Hearing on Natural Infrastructure in Water Resources Projects

WASHINGTON, D.C. Today, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) will hold a hearing on the role of natural infrastructure in water resources projects.

Below is the opening statement of Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.), as prepared for delivery:

“Good morning, everyone. I’m pleased to call this hearing to order.

“To our witnesses—Dr. Bridges, Dr. Galloway, Mr. Chaisson, Ms. Julie Ufner, and Mr. Rick Johnson—welcome and thank you for being here today.

“I also want to thank Ranking Member Capito and everyone on our committee for leading by example this Congress, advancing bipartisan water infrastructure and surface transportation legislation with unanimous support.

“I hope we will continue this track record as we start to work on the next Water Resources Development Act.

“As we get started on that legislation, it’s important to reflect on the work being done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to address our nation’s water resources infrastructure needs.

“Throughout much of the 20th century, the Corps has successfully provided communities across our country with protection from powerful floods and helped shippers navigate our waterways safely to support trade and our economy.

“With the support of Congress, the Corps has evolved its planning practices to consider projects that do not solely rely on steel and concrete, but also incorporate approaches that work in concert with nature itself. All too often in the past, these nature-based approaches have failed to make it past the planning stages.

“Fortunately, however, in my home state of Delaware and other parts of the country, we are beginning to witness more frequently the benefits that these natural infrastructure projects can bring both to our economy and our environment.

“One example is Bethany Beach, Delaware which is located midway between Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and Ocean City, Maryland. 

Rather than rely largely on seawalls and other hard structures that will age and decay, this project uses dredged material to construct dunes and place sand to protect coastal communities from hurricanes and other storms.

“Like many of our states, Delaware’s economy relies in no small part on tourism, and supporting our five-star beaches is critical. This project protects more than just homes—it protects Delaware jobs and our economy, too.

“And the Corps is not the only federal agency using natural infrastructure. In 2016, the Fish and Wildlife Service completed the restoration of Fowler Beach at Delaware’s Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

“This project has provided crucial habitat for threatened and endangered species, all while reducing the risk of flooding in nearby communities.

“In addition to protecting Delaware and the communities found along our nation’s coastlines, the Corps also provides critical support to our navigation channels, including constructing and maintaining one of the most vital shipping arteries in the American economy: the Mississippi River.

“Over time, the Corps has significantly altered both the course and the banks of the River through a system of dams and levees. While this system of flood control structures has protected communities from flooding and supported commerce, it has also had the unintended consequence of accelerating land loss in Southern Louisiana.

“The Corps’ infrastructure along the Mississippi restricts the River’s natural placement of nutrient-rich sediment, which is essential for fish and other wildlife habitat, while also providing significant protection from hurricanes and storms.

“Sadly, Louisiana loses, on average, a football field of land every 100 minutes. Just think about that. A football field of land every 100 minutes is lost there due to sea level rise caused by climate change—and our existing infrastructure is making it worse. 

“Louisiana’s Port Fourchon—a vital economic driver for the nation—has recognized the problem there and taken critical steps to increase local resiliency by using both “grey” and natural infrastructure together.

“The Port has worked to create hundreds of acres of marshlands to help reduce the impact of storm surges, promote tourism, and rebuild Louisiana’s ecosystem.

“Incorporating natural infrastructure elements in the Corps’ Civil Works projects can have real benefits, like those seen in my state or in Louisiana. But, as I mentioned, the use of these features is still the exception rather than the rule.

“That is largely because the Corps’ current budgeting practices fail to capture all the benefits of natural infrastructure, especially when that infrastructure can lessen the impact of a future storm or natural disaster. For example, in budgeting for a project, the Corps currently does not count any damage avoided from future storms as a project benefit. That is something that needs to change.

“Today, we hope to explore the Corps’ progress in using natural infrastructure and to understand how the Corps will incorporate natural infrastructure into its future planning for Civil Works projects. I’m sure Dr. Bridges has some answers, and we look forward to his testimony.

“The Corps has a great motto: ‘Essayons.’ It means ‘Let us try.’ And while we know the Corps can engineer solutions for the nation’s toughest water resources challenges, when it comes to incorporating natural and nature-based features, it’s time to move on to ‘Let us do.’