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S. 2288 establishes national priorities for the Corps in terms of navigation, flood control, and ecosystem restoration. It revives the Water Resources Council (WRC) made up of cabinet secretaries from several agencies as well as adding to it the Secretaries of the Army and Homeland Security as well as the Chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Since the zeroing out of the WRC process and budget in the 1980s, there has been little, if any, cross-department or interagency coordination on key water issues.
THE WRC WOULD, basically, provide an assessment of the nation’s vulnerability to floods and storms, including the relative risks by region, and provide recommendations for improving flood damage reduction programs. In conjunction with the National Academy of Sciences, it would also revise the federal guidelines on water projects to improve project analysis of such things as benefits and costs (including non-economic ones) which have been the subject of controversy for some time now.
Most importantly, the WRC would submit to Congress a report prioritizing Corps water resources projects by type. While not a legally actionable list, such as happens with military base closures, it would at least put Congress on notice as to what the top priorities are from a national perspective. It would provide a transparent, open process that sets a standard by which to evaluate congressional action over time.
The circumstances of the Louisiana coast and New Orleans, in particular, illustrate how limited federal dollars have been squandered on projects of limited usefulness and cost effectiveness — at the expense of needed levee protection. The economic, social, and environmental costs of the $748 million Industrial Canal Lock Replacement in New Orleans dwarfed any of the claimed benefits of this proposed project. Providing a longer, wider, and deeper lock is of questionable value because barge traffic in the canal has decreased 50% since 1988. The Corps launched construction in 2000 and Congress has already appropriated more than $70 million for this project.
Whenever a Corps authorization or appropriations bill is moving through Congress, it is festooned with, literally, hundreds of such projects and studies, driven largely by parochial political interests, rather than pressing national priorities in terms of human health and safety, economics, or environmental protection. Call it the Canal-to-Nowhere syndrome.
Another feature of the bill is a requirement for independent review by panels of outside experts for Corp projects that are over $25 million; are challenged by a governor of a state in which the project is located; or are determined by the Secretary of the Army to be “controversial” as to impacts, costs, and benefits — economic and environmental.
This provision of the legislation will, no doubt, give the Corps some heartburn since it might be construed as duplicative to the recently instituted peer-review process it has established for major projects. Hopefully, the senatorial sponsors will accommodate these concerns by entertaining amendments, for instance, to raise the dollar threshold; harmonize, to the extent possible, the bill with current best practices; and provide greater objectivity for projects deemed to be controversial.
With reasonable adjustments the Corps might come to view these independent panels as legitimizing technical bodies which could dampen controversy over the long haul while bolstering its credibility with the public.
Given congressional prerogatives in asserting control over the Corps budget, why would Congress pass this legislation in the first place? That, as they say, is a political question. Hopefully, a dynamic political environment, one in which bridges to nowhere and other diversions from pressing national priorities are increasingly criticized by constituencies on the left and the right, will engender a coalition for reform of critical civil works funding.p> G. Tracy Mehan, III, was assistant administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in President Bush’s first term. He is presently a Principal with the Cadmus Group, Inc., an environmental consulting firm in Arlington, Virginia. The views expressed here are entirely his own. br> /p>
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H/T to National Review Online