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story.lead_photo.caption In this 2019 file photo U.S. Senator John Boozman, R-Ark., speaks during a ribbon cutting at Rogers Mercy Hospital in Rogers. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

The U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a $19.5 billion water infrastructure package Wednesday, voting in a cavernous, nearly empty Capitol Hill committee room to forward the bills to the full Senate.

The America's Water Infrastructure Act of 2020 and the Drinking Water Infrastructure Act of 2020 each passed with bipartisan support, 21-0.

U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., was one of 15 senators present; six others voted by proxy.

The water proposal, which would authorize nearly $17 billion in spending, will, if it becomes law, help commerce continue to flow throughout the country.

"This is our inland waterways. It's our ports. It's our harbors. These are the underpinnings of our economy," the lawmaker from Rogers said in an interview after Wednesday's vote.

The bill includes language requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to "provide assistance to the non-Federal" stakeholders seeking to deepen the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River navigation channel "to a minimum depth of 12 feet."

The 445-mile system, which stretches from Oklahoma to the Mississippi River, provides a key shipping route across Arkansas.

There is also language seeking to bolster the Ouachita-Black River navigation system by requiring the Corps to add "water supply" as one of the project's purposes.

If approved, the Corps would be required to consult with nonfederal interests before signing off on plans to fix deficient levees.

Another provision would change the way contracts are awarded when there is a disaster declaration. The change would speed up the process, according to Boozman.

The package includes reauthorization of the Clean Water State Revolving Funds, which allocated $10.5 million for Arkansas in fiscal 2020.

"These things aren't glamorous but they're so important to the country," Boozman said.

The package was bipartisan, he stressed.

"It's just something that Republicans and Democrats worked really, really hard on and I think we had a really good result that we, as a committee and as a country, can be proud of," he said.

This was the first time that the Senate committee had gathered since March.

Committee members had recently participated in an online forum "but it was essentially with very limited interaction," Boozman said.

"There's a lot of things that work well over the phone but I think the committee process is ... much better being done in person," he said.

Boozman wore a mask at the hearing, pulling it aside to take sips of coffee. Committee members practiced social distancing, sitting at least 6 feet away from one another.

In a news release Wednesday, Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and ranking member Tom Carper, D-Del., stressed the importance of the legislation.

In addition to the America's Water Infrastructure Act of 2020, they also highlighted the Safe Drinking Water Act, noting that it includes "programs that support drinking water infrastructure and provide resources and technical assistance to communities facing critical drinking water needs."

Dennis Sternberg, CEO of the Arkansas Rural Water Association, said the legislative package will "help the cities and towns and rural water districts across the state."

Metro on 05/07/2020

Print Headline: Senate panel backs 2 water measures

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