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New Marching Orders for the Army Corps of Engineers

Air Date: Week of

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina there's a move to reform the Army Corps of Engineers. Critics say the Corps needs to better plans and design its massive water control projects. But Living on Earth's Washington correspondent Jeff Young tells us that would require big changes in Congress, too.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. With a new hurricane season already underway, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is doing some serious self-examination about what went wrong during the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. In a recent report. the Corps admits making major mistakes in the design and construction of levees around New Orleans.

But critics of the Army engineers charge the problems go much deeper than that. They say too many of the massive water control projects the Corps builds around the country waste taxpayer money, harm the environment, and, in the end, fail to protect people and property from flooding.

Now there’s a move in Congress to give the Corps new marching orders. But as Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, that would also require some big changes in the way Congress itself operates.

YOUNG: The Army Corps faced tough questions when levees failed, flooding thousands of homes. But this wasn’t last year in New Orleans. This was 13 years ago when the Mississippi put much of the Midwest under water. President Clinton asked retired Corps General Gerald Galloway to find out what went wrong.

GALLOWAY: We recommended, first of all, we needed a national flood policy because we don’t have a federal water policy.

YOUNG: Galloway’s report called for major policy changes to strengthen flood protection for communities and discourage development in floodplains. It was a landmark study on the heels of a disaster that had captured national headlines. And the result?

GALLOWAY: Sad to say, that many of smaller ones were implemented but the big ones, the ones that counted, were not. The half-life of the memory of a flood is pretty short and I’m afraid that’s what happened after the ’93 flood.

YOUNG: Other reports followed detailing problems with the way the Army Corps plans and designs its water control projects. The National Academy of Sciences called for independent, peer review of project designs. And the Government Accountability Office found serious flaws in the cost-benefit analyses used to determine which projects to build.

These might sound like bureaucratic, inside-the-beltway issues. But they hit home for Pam Dashiell. She lives in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans near the Industrial Canal. The Corps had proposed a massive new lock to let larger ships through. Dashiell and other neighborhood activists argued that the money could be put to better use.

DASHIELL: For many, many years we’ve been saying, put $700 million dollars, into hurricane protection. And it never happened.

YOUNG: Then came Katrina. The levee along the Industrial Canal fell apart and Dashiell’s home was among the thousands flooded. Corps critics say the agency must prioritize its projects to better protect people, spend more wisely and limit environmental damage. And they say the time for those changes is now, while the lessons of Katrina are still fresh.

BARRY: A crisis is a terrible thing to waste (low laughter)

YOUNG: Historian and writer John Barry told an audience of engineers and scientists at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington that they should work to change the Army Corps. He says that will also mean changing the way Congress decides which projects to fund.

BARRY: The priorities are set by the Congress. Whatever Congressman happens to sit on the right committee or gets a favor from the leadership, those are the projects that get built. Money continues to go to economic projects rather than protecting people’s lives.

YOUNG: As Barry and others describe it, Congress and the Corps engage in a sort of mutual back scratching that ensures big budgets for the Corps and big projects for the home states of key members of Congress. Steve Ellis is with the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

ELLIS: This is an agency that knows where its bread is buttered, so they take care of members of Congress. We have to demand that we have mechanisms prioritizing Corps projects across this country so it becomes less about political muscle and more about project merit.

YOUNG: A bill before the Senate might do just that. A measure by Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold and Arizona Republican John McCain would make the Corps set priorities. For the first time, each proposed project would be ranked by its importance. The Senators also want more independent, peer review of costly or controversial projects.

Top Corps officials were not available for comment. In past testimony before Congress, officials have said the Corps is already working to set priorities on projects and to use more outside review. But Corps critics like Cynthia Sarthou say the changes so far have been superficial. Sarthou leads a collection of southern environmental groups called the Gulf Restoration Network. She says restoring the gulf can’t happen without modernizing the Corps.

SARTHOU: So that’s our overall goal, to bring the Corps into the 21st century to require them to do holistic planning and design so that the citizens who are relying on the Corps to protect their livelihoods and their lives can actually rely on that agency.

YOUNG: Sarthou admits it’s a long shot. The Corps is one of the oldest and most entrenched agencies in government. And the changes could limit one of the most prized perks in Congress: bringing home big money projects. But the reformers seem to have taken up the Corps’ own motto in this fight: "Let us try."

For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



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