Re-engineering the Corps

It's ironic that a government agency dominated by engineers seems to have some serious design flaws. Recently, the beleaguered U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the nation's chief water resources agency, has been under fire from several directions. An unlikely alliance of environmentalists, taxpayer groups and Republican and Democratic politicians are blasting the Corps for what they perceive as a long practice of carrying out many unjustified water projects that waste taxpayers' dollars.

Established in 1779, the Corps has built and deepened more than 140 ports and harbors, constructed the nation's 11,000-mile network of inland waterway navigation channels for barge traffic, constructed 8,5000 miles of levees and more than 500 flood control dams. The Corps' projects impact the nation's environmentally sensitive floodplains, waterways and coastal areas throughout the United States. Even though it is generally agreed upon that many of these projects have been essential to the nation's economic development, critics of the agency complain that a large number of Corps projects are both financially wasteful and environmentally damaging.

In 2000, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) teamed up to produce the report Troubled Waters, which raises objections to many of the Corps water projects. According to the authors of the report, the Corps is one of the key levers the U.S. Congress uses to pull pork-barrel projects into individual congressional districts. The authors assert that frequently Corps projects only benefit select individuals or industries. They maintain that when projects are guided by political interests or disguised beneficiaries, the cost to U.S. taxpayers and the environment can be immense.

The authors of the report take the position that the extreme political pressure placed on the Corps to carry out construction without sufficient scrutiny has led to the authorization of a large number of marginal or unjustified projects. For example, the authors cite the inland navigation system, which gives barge operators a 90 percent taxpayer subsidy. Many of the waterways carry a fraction of the barge traffic originally predicted by the Corps, while having enormous negative impacts on freshwater ecosystems. To view Troubled Waters, check out NWF's Web site (www.nwf.org).

On March 5, 2002, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation, the Corps of Engineers Modernization and Improvement Act of 2002 (S. 1987), in the U.S. Senate to stop more than $15 billion in water projects, including dredging and the other measures intended to improve navigation. The bill was introduced by Senators Robert Smith (R-N.H.), ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis).

The financially conservative legislation addresses the more than $40 billion backlog in authorized Corps projects by deauthorizing those that have never received construction funds (including projects over 25 years old). Additionally, the Corps Reform bill will ensure projects are economically justified by raising the cost-benefit ratio standard they must meet prior to receiving approval. This legislation also promotes accountability by instituting an independent peer review for specified projects.

According to Sen. McCain, one of the bill's co-sponsors, "For too long, the process by which Army Corps projects are reviewed and funded has been influenced more by political favoritism and rampant earmarking in the annual appropriations cycle. Our first priority should be to protect the taxpayers and ensure that federal dollars are invested where they are needed most."

At press time, the bill was still under review and had not yet been presented to the full Senate for a vote. To track the current status of Senate bill 1987, go to the Library of Congress' legislative information Web site at thomas.loc.gov.

This firestorm of criticism appears to be getting the attention of the officials at the Corps. At a Senate hearing held on June 18, 2002, Robert B. Flowers, Corps chief of engineers, said that the Corps is already trying to implement reforms. Among other things, he said that he wants to incorporate a watershed approach into his decisionmaking in order to consider a variety of interests that will be affected by a project. In addition, he has "revitalized" an environmental advisory board to help evaluate the process. He stated that one problem with the Corps' existing approach is that projects tend to have a single focus on a geographically limited area. In addition, Flowers said that the Corps has requested a significant increase in funding in its fiscal year 2002 budget request to help address the concern that the agency is not following up on mitigation projects performed to make up for wetlands losses and other environmental degradation that may occur from Corps projects.

The Corps' recognition that they need to implement reforms is an encouraging sign. Hopefully, the agency will redirect its focus to more fiscally and environmentally responsible management of the nation's water resources.




This article originally appeared in the September 2002 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 13, No. 8, p. 6.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2002 issue of Environmental Protection.

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