Water war rider kills popular forecasting bill

By Emily Yehle | 12/12/2016 07:12 AM EST

This story was updated at 12:15 p.m.

A decades-old water dispute between Georgia, Florida and Alabama killed a sweeping weather bill in the final days of the lame-duck session, angering lawmakers who had spent months hammering out a compromise to improve tornado and hurricane forecasts.

The "Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act," H.R. 1561, passed the Senate on Dec. 1. It was a version negotiated among supporters in both chambers, incorporating language from two Senate bills that focused on beefing up seasonal forecasts and tsunami warnings (E&E Daily, Dec. 2).


But the Senate-passed language came with a controversial addition: A provision from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) that directed the National Water Center to make recommendations on the management of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint water system. The system is at the center of the water war between Florida and Georgia.

Nelson’s add complicated the bill’s path. Georgia lawmakers objected to its inclusion, and the House did not bring it up for a unanimous consent vote as originally planned.

"It’s unfortunate to have to tank a big bill that does a lot of good for the weather enterprise and industry for a somewhat parochial issue," said an aide on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. The panel plans to resurrect the bill at the beginning of the new Congress.

The provision wasn’t new: It was originally in S. 1331, one of the Senate bills incorporated into H.R. 1561. Negotiations over the combined package focused mostly on language directing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to consider commercial satellite data. House negotiators did not bring up Nelson’s provision.

The House Science aide said negotiators missed it, unaware of its intrinsic controversy. The provision was part of broader language authorizing the National Water Center.

But Nelson’s office said his provision wasn’t brought up because it wasn’t controversial. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed S. 1331 easily last year, with Nelson’s amendment attached.

In a statement, Nelson said the House can still pass the bill.

"It would be a disappointment if Georgia Republicans are successful in taking down the weather bill at the last second," he said. "A carefully balanced version that was negotiated with the House Science Committee and unanimously approved by the Senate sits in the House awaiting action. All the House has to do now is take it up in the pro-forma session and pass it."

H.R. 1561 first passed the House more than a year ago, ushered through by Reps. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.). Supporters hoped it would lead to earlier warnings for severe weather such as tornadoes and hurricanes.

It would have directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to increase funding for weather research and aimed to streamline the transfer of technology from research to use. It would also have required NOAA to consider commercial satellite data to augment information it gets from its own weather satellites.

Lawmakers cobbled together language from S. 1331 and S. 1573, both authored by Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.).

The former would have directed NOAA to improve seasonal forecasts to give farms and other businesses time to prepare for weather trends. The latter would have required NOAA to place "warning coordination meteorologists" in each forecast office to better communicate the impact of forecasts to the public and local officials.

H.R. 1561 would have also reauthorized NOAA’s tsunami forecasting and warning program, beefing up requirements for ocean buoys and outlining priorities.

If it had passed as expected, the legislation would have been the first major weather bill in two decades. In a series of columns for The Washington Post this year, weather researchers praised the original H.R. 1561 and S. 1331.

Steve Ackerman, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, wrote in September that the bills could help ensure continued improvement in weather forecasting.

"We have much to learn about the vagaries of weather. One of the most important tools is a growing fleet of spacecraft dedicated to the task of watching and reporting on our skies," he wrote. "Support provided by the weather-focused bills currently in the Congress is a critical first step to making this happen."

Separately, a provision related to the water dispute also threatened to delay water projects legislation in the Senate this week (see related story).