Politics & Policy

Dam It

Contra John Berlau on the Army Corps of Engineers

I confess that my jaw dropped when I read, on National Review Online, an impassioned defense of congressional earmarks (some call them “pork barrel” projects) for the Army Corps of Engineers on the Mississippi River, written by a representative of a libertarian think tank (“Greens v. Levees,” by John Berlau, Sept. 8). I must assume that, in an effort to tweak the Sierra Club and the Clinton administration, John Berlau was overcome by the old maxim, “My enemies’ enemies are my friends.”

#ad#What the Army Inspector General, the National Academy of Sciences, the General Accounting Office, and President Bush’s own Office of Management and Budget have criticized, Berlau seems to defend without exception or qualification. His wide-ranging defense of federal solutions–primarily engineering projects, such as levees and pumping–to flooding and other river-management problems fails to consider some well-established political realities: the Iron Triangle, cost-benefit ratios, the moral hazards of risk, and the corrosive effects, both economic and environmental, of government subsidies.

But the greatest omission in Berlau’s brief for traditional bricks-and-mortar solutions to natural disasters is the failure to recognize the transformation within the engineering profession generally and within many quarters inside the Army Corps of Engineers itself. This sea change in thinking involves a shift from an exclusive focus on river engineering to general river management, which recognizes that a river is a dynamic system with a natural tendency to recreate its form regardless of what human beings might desire. While the genie is already out of the bottle in places such as New Orleans, there is no need to replicate these errors for all time.

Putting rivers in oblong boxes, so to speak, and isolating them from their floodplains, has actually resulted in escalating national flood losses as well as in tremendous ecological damage. A March 2004 report by Taxpayers for Common Sense and the National Wildlife Federation stated that “the Corps has spent $123 billion to build and operate more than 500 large flood control projects and thousands of smaller projects nationwide, mostly within the past 50 years.” It goes on to point out that this expenditure appears to have exacerbated flood damages by inducing development in high-risk, flood-prone areas and by increasing downstream flooding. Citing Corps reports on the Midwest Flood of 1993, it points out that “‘structural flood protection projects have tended to induce floodplain development beyond what otherwise would have taken place.’” In fact, “the nation’s overall average annual flood damages have more than doubled in real terms-rising from more than $2.6 billion in the first half of the 20th century to more than $6 billion per year in the past ten years.” (These latter figures are from the National Weather Service.)

In his FY 2004 budget, President Bush tried to set some budget priorities for the Corps, stressing “projects that provide a very high net economic or environmental return to society.” The president, given his focus on the war on terror, has been disinclined to wield his veto pen, so Congress has not paid too much attention to priority-setting in Corps projects, any more than it has in the recent energy and transportation bills.

So the system remains dysfunctional. Public-works projects have always played an important role in the growth of our commercial republic, but they should be truly public projects–a reasoned choice by the national public–rather than politically driven earmarks. Moreover, they should be designed to achieve their objectives in such a way as to minimize costs and maximize multiple benefits in terms of economics, safety, and the environment. That’s why we need to consider, very urgently, the new nonstructural approaches that can both save money and protect the environment.

Berlau’s arguments regarding the Missouri River and the big dams in the northwest are generally correct–but those places really involve issues very different from those on the Mississippi. In the Missouri and northwest cases, the dams have been in place for decades and entire economies have become dependent upon them. Thus the presumption should be in favor of keeping them in good order. The controversies there focus on the operation of existing infrastructure, not on the relative merits of new construction.

In June 2002, Lt. General Robert B. Flowers, then chief of engineers at the Corps, told Congress: “The Corps must change . . . Transformation of the Corps won’t be easy, but we stand ready to work with you . . . for the well being of the American people and the environment in which we live.” Bob Flowers is a fine man and a patriot. We should take him up on his offer.

G. Tracy Mehan III was assistant administrator for water at the EPA in President Bush’s first term. He is presently a principal with The Cadmus Group, Inc., an environmental consulting firm in Arlington, Va.

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