Wyoming U.S. Senator John Barrasso helped craft a sweeping bipartisan bill that could go a long way to deal with Wyoming water issues.
Most big legislative efforts have now ground to a halt in Washington ahead of November’s elections. But a new compromise bill that’s aimed at revitalizing the nation’s ailing water infrastructure, which Senator Barrasso says is vital for the Mountain West, could be an exception.
"Water is critical. As we say in the West—whiskey's for drinking, water's for fighting over."
The legislation attempts to boost local water storage capacity out west while also assisting rural communities at risk of flooding and it helps communities clean their water supply and improve their irrigation systems. Barrasso said it’s a win for the state.
"We need to make sure we have the capacity and the storage in Wyoming. So yeah, we have a lot of bipartisan agreement on getting the decisions out of Washington back closer to home so people on the ground can make decisions rather than somebody sitting in an office in Washington, D.C."
As chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee Barrasso was able to include a lot of input in the new bill after hearing testimony from Wyoming residents.
"Including a county commissioner from Worland, Wyoming, Washakie County, to talk about the needs there that they have with ice jams and the damage that can do. We have people that can talk about what's happening with silt buildup. And you have that buildup in a reservoir, then the reservoir has less capacity for the water that we need during dry times."
The bill also seeks to update America’s ports which ship out a lot of Wyoming coal and natural gas. But striking a deal that makes urban lawmakers and rural lawmakers happy isn’t easy, according to Barrasso.
"This is something that takes a lot of commitment to get it done in a bipartisan way. You have rural communities which have huge water needs. You have coastal communities which have needs. In terms of the overall economy of the United States, the rivers and the ports play a tremendous role in moving product around the country."
Delaware Senator Tom Carper is the top Democrat on the committee. Carper, Barrasso and others were able to go old school on the effort. Carper recounts him asking Wyoming’s senior senator Mike Enzi how he was able to forge compromises when he sat across from former liberal Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy on the Health and Education Committee.
"How do you work together to get so much done? And Mike Enzi said 'Ted and I agree on about 80 percent of the stuff, we disagree on 20 percent. We focus on the 80 percent that we agree on,’ and on this legislation, we're focusing on the 80 percent."
Carper said the federal government actually plays a huge role in the nation’s water infrastructure which is why this legislation is vital.
"99 percent of the freight that moves in and out of our ports in America, 99 percent, comes through waterways that are maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. Everybody has a dog in this fight. Everybody."
Other members of the committee also say they see no reason why the bill shouldn’t sail to President Trump’s desk this year, including Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin.
"Oh, I think it's excellent. Oh, I think we have an excellent chance. It's got strong bipartisan support. It's in the range that's likely to get through. We'll get 60 votes easily. I think it's a good chance."
Still, Cardin and other Democrats are disappointed the bill isn’t included in Trump’s initial call for a more than one trillion dollar infrastructure bill that’s now been shelved.
"I think the scope might not be as large as we would like it to be because we don't have more revenues so we have to keep it modest."
Still, Senator Barrasso says doing such a sweeping, expensive bill was never the game plan for him and other members of the Republican leadership team at the Capitol.
"Well we've talked about infrastructure being done piece by piece rather than one huge bill and this is the first part of that. This is the water infrastructure bill. There'll also be work we're doing in terms of bridges, highways, roads. So it's all part of the needs of the country. Right now we're very successfully moving ahead in a bipartisan way on water infrastructure, which is really important for Wyoming."
There’s still no timeline for when the water infrastructure bill may hit the Senate floor.