If no other good comes out of the Katrina disaster, it could be the realization by Congress and the administration of the need to overhaul the way they prioritize and rank the nation’s civil works projects. The suffering of the people of New Orleans and environs is a vivid, if painful, illustration of the necessity of targeting high-risk threats and high-value projects while abandoning the traditional political allocation of precious resources. As the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) begins to move through Congress, now is the time to consider a new approach that applies the venerable principle of war — concentration — to the Army Corps of Engineers and its civil works budget.
The recent announcements by the Bush administration that the cost of rebuilding New Orleans’ levees to federal standards had almost tripled to $10 billion, followed by a subsequent reduction in the cost estimate to $7.6 billion, only intensified the ongoing orgy of recriminations, second guessing, and general dismay over the failure of that levee system in the first place.
Originally, Donald E. Powell, the administration’s rebuilding coordinator, had indicated that some areas may be left without protection of levees meeting the requirements of the national flood insurance program. This would have made it more difficult for developers to take on the risk of rebuilding in those locales.
According to the Washington Post, Mr. Powell said these same areas would not be subject to catastrophic flooding, but “there might be some ‘manageable’ flooding.” Mr. Powell believed that the matter of the $6 billion shortfall was “an insurance issue, and not necessarily a safety issue.” No doubt, the numbers will continue to bounce around as the project moves forward.
Mr. Powell’s statements were regrettable but understandable. He was trying to take a relative risk or prioritization approach to the deployment of limited dollars. Powell had broken the parishes of New Orleans into 10 areas and was presenting state and local officials with comparisons and choices such as these:
Three sections of Plaquemines Parish contain less than 2 percent of the area’s population, but cost almost $2.5 to $2.9 billion to build certified levees. However, the Algiers area, which contains 13 percent of the region’s population, costs $129 million. Powell is asking the locals to help him make some tough calls in terms of who gets what.
The administration has, most recently, committed another $2.5 billion for levee work which will, according to the Post, ensure protection for 98 percent of the population in the four-parish region of New Orleans to meet flood insurance standards and protect against the “100-year flood.” However, it is unclear how much Louisiana must contribute. Moreover, still unresolved is the fate of lower Plaquemines Parish, a rural area with only 1,500 residents for whom levee improvements would now cost $1.6 billion.
To protect Plaquemines Parish, a long piece of land extending 60 miles southeast of New Orleans into the Gulf, would cost well over a million dollars for every person in the area. With almost 20 square miles of Louisiana coast eroding away every year, many parts of this parish are now under water.
NEVERTHELESS, POLITICIANS HATE these kinds of trade-offs. No where is this truer than in the manner in which Congress authorizes and appropriates funding for projects for the civil works program of the Army Corps of Engineers.
On the budget or appropriations side, the White House, OMB, and the Secretary of the Army develop the President’s budget priorities which are, in turn, subject to change or supplementation by congressional committees. Because the Corps’ total civil works budget has been reduced over recent decades, in terms of real dollars, and because a higher percentage of it goes to funding operations and maintenance activities, congressional add-ons put additional strain on already limited resources.
Of course, executive branch priorities are not infallible. But they are developed from a national perspective. And OMB, usually a constructive player in these matters, does look to optimize net economic benefits, which is at least an intellectually defensible basis for prioritization if not the only one.
“Concentration” is the overarching principle of war. It has been characterized as the concentration of superior forces and the strict economy of forces assigned to secondary missions. This venerable maxim of military strategy may provide a useful analogy for prioritizing the nation’s infrastructure investments as they relate to the work of the Army Corps of Engineers, especially in the area of flood protection, navigation, and even environmental restoration.
It’s time for Congress, the administration, and the Corps to apply this principle for the benefit of citizens and the taxpayers they serve by focusing, or concentrating, substantial but limited resources only on those essential undertakings that protect the lives and properties of Americans most at risk, or where there are opportunities for restoration of outstanding or critical environmental or natural resources, say, coastal wetlands in Louisiana.
Fortunately, there is a means at hand for implementing this fundamental reform in policy and practice: the Feingold-McCain bill. No, not McCain-Feingold. The bill in question has nothing to do with campaign finance, climate change, or any boneheaded move to “censure” the President.
The Water Resources Planning and Modernization Act of 2006 (S. 2288), co-sponsored by Senators Feingold and McCain, as a possible amendment to WRDA, is an imperfect vehicle for changing the way Congress handles Corps business. But we should not let the perfect become the enemy of the possible. As the current New Orleans predicament reveals, there is too much at stake to hold out for some unachievable Platonic notion of Corps reform.
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.
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.