Par for the Corps
A Flood of Bad Projects

By Michael Grunwald
Sunday, May 14, 2006

In 2000, when I was writing a 50,000-word Washington Post series about dysfunction at the Army Corps of Engineers, I highlighted a $65 million flood-control project in Missouri as Exhibit A. Corps documents showed that the project would drain more acres of wetlands than all U.S. developers do in a typical year, but wouldn't stop flooding in the town it was meant to protect. FEMA's director called it "a crazy idea"; the Fish and Wildlife Service's regional director called it "absolutely ridiculous."

Six years later, the project hasn't changed -- except for its cost, which has soared to $112 million. Larry Prather, chief of legislative management for the Corps, privately described it in a 2002 e-mail as an "economic dud with huge environmental consequences." Another Corps official called it "a bad project. Period." But the Corps still wants to build it.

"Who can take this seriously?" Prather asked in his e-mail. That's a good question to ask about the entire civil works program of the Corps.

It came up occasionally in 2000, when Pentagon investigators, the Government Accountability Office and the National Academy of Sciences were documenting the agency's ecologically disastrous, economically dubious, politically inspired water projects.

Then the Corps failed to protect New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, despite spending more in Louisiana than in any other state. Last month, the Corps commander acknowledged that his agency's "design failure" led to the floodwall collapses that drowned New Orleans. So why isn't everyone asking questions about the Corps and its patrons in Congress?

Somehow, America has concluded that the scandal of Katrina was the government's response to the disaster, not the government's contribution to the disaster. The Corps has eluded the public's outrage -- even though a useless Corps shipping canal intensified Katrina's surge, even though poorly designed Corps floodwalls collapsed just a few feet from an unnecessary $750 million Corps navigation project , even though the Corps had promoted development in dangerously low-lying New Orleans floodplains and had helped destroy the vast marshes that once provided the city's natural flood protection.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's failures didn't inundate a city, kill 1,000 residents and inflict $100 billion in damages. Yet FEMA is justifiably disgraced, while Congress keeps giving the Corps more money and more power. A new 185-point Senate report on what went wrong during Katrina waits until point No. 65 to mention the Corps "design and construction deficiencies" that left New Orleans underwater. Meanwhile, a new multibillion-dollar potpourri of Corps projects is nearing approval on Capitol Hill.

That's because the Corps is an addiction for members of Congress, who use its water projects to steer jobs and money to their constituents and contributors. President Bush has opposed dozens of the most egregious boondoggles, but Congress has kept funding them and the Corps has refused to renounce them -- while New Orleans has remained vulnerable.

Even Prather, the agency's public representative on the Hill, complained in that private e-mail that the Corps has sacrificed its credibility by defending its indefensible projects -- he called them "swine" -- just as the Catholic Church defended its wayward priests.

"We have no strategy for saving ourselves," he wrote. "Someone needs to be supervising the Corps."

The Torporific Pork Barrel

The Corps is one of the oldest and oddest federal agencies.

It got its start as an engineering regiment during the Revolutionary War, building fortifications at Bunker Hill. It is still run by Army officers, and it still oversees military projects such as the reconstruction of Iraq. But most of its 35,000 employees are now civilians working on civilian projects -- deepening ports; replenishing beaches; draining wetlands for agriculture and development; and taming rivers for barge traffic, flood control and hydropower. Officially the Corps is a Pentagon agency, but it functions like a congressional preserve; its civil works budget consists almost entirely of earmarks requested by individual members of Congress and endorsed by the Corps.

So the United States doesn't really have a water resources policy; just a pork-barrel water resources agency that builds pet projects in congressional districts across the country.

But the pressure goes both ways. The Corps motto is " Essayons ," French for "Let us try," and its leaders have always pushed Congress to let them improve on nature's work. Even in the pre-Earth Day era, executive-branch officials complained that Corps leaders exploited their Capitol Hill connections to secure funding for projects that served their clients in the shipping, dredging, farming and building industries. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's interior secretary excoriated the "reckless and wastrel behavior" of the "insubordinate and self-seeking" Corps, attributing its popularity to "the torporific effect of the pork barrel." President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared that "I cannot overstate my opposition to this kind of waste of public funds."

All modern presidents have tried to rein in the Corps, but Congress has jealously protected it. In 2000, after I wrote about a secret "Program Growth Initiative" that Corps generals had devised to try to boost their budget, the Clinton administration was so embarrassed by the reaction of its assistant Army secretary for civil works -- "Oh my God. My God. I have no idea what you're talking about" -- that it announced a modest plan to reaffirm the Pentagon's authority over the Corps. A week later, after a ferocious backlash from congressional leaders, the plan was meekly withdrawn.

The Corps is allowed to endorse projects whenever it calculates that the economic benefits to private interests -- even one private interest -- would exceed the costs to taxpayers. And without executive-branch oversight, the Corps has traditionally inflated benefits, low-balled costs, and otherwise justified projects that keep its employees busy and its congressional patrons happy.

The Corps predicted its Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway would cost about $300 million and float 28 million tons of cargo in its first year; the actual totals were $2 billion and 1.4 million tons. And that was before the Program Growth Initiative ordered Corps analysts to "get creative" with economic studies.

The result was the kind of boondoggles that Larry Prather called "swine," such as the Yazoo Pump project, a plan to build the world's largest flood-control pump in the Mississippi Delta even though it would cost more than buying the soybean farms it is supposed to keep dry. Or the similarly destructive plan to build jetties to protect private fishing boats off North Carolina's Outer Banks, at a cost of about $500,000 per boat. Or a proposal to deepen the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to attract cargo ships that had no interest in using it.

The biggest Corps scandal of 2000 involved a $1.2 billion navigation project on the Mississippi River. The Corps economist studying it had concluded that the numbers didn't add up, so his bosses reassigned him and pressured his team to concoct a new economic justification. The Army inspector general later concluded not only that the Corps had skewed that analysis, but that it had a systemic bias in favor of big projects. Generals were reprimanded, the National Academy of Sciences urged more modest approaches and the Corps went back to the drawing board.

In December 2004, the Corps came back with its modest proposal: a $7.7 billion project.

Again and Again

Today's Corps leaders say their agency is more ecologically sensitive and fiscally sensible; in recent interviews, they promised "more credible" analyses. Bush has proposed zero funding for most of the zaniest Corps projects; he also shut down the Outer Banks debacle, and fired an assistant Army secretary who complained publicly about the proposed budget cuts. The deepening of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal seems dead, and the Corps has stopped dredging some of its little-used waterways.

For the most part, though, Congress has ignored Bush's proposed cuts. And the Corps still defends its clunkers, including a Delaware River deepening that was savaged by the GAO and a Columbia River deepening that was debunked by the Oregonian newspaper .

The Corps recently admitted in court that its bizarre Missouri flood-control project was justified by a basic math error, and a new study suggests that a multibillion-dollar Corps navigation project on the Ohio River will make the Mississippi project look cost-effective by comparison. The Corps is also struggling with its $10 billion effort to restore the Florida Everglades, the project that was supposed to turn around the agency's environmental reputation; one Corps manager complained in a 2005 memo that it's over budget and behind schedule, and that it isn't restoration at all.

"We continue to see the same systemic problems at the Corps, again and again, the same recurring themes," GAO analyst Anu Mittal said.

Themes such as unintended consequences, environmental destruction, shoddy economics and selfish politics.

The same themes that drowned New Orleans.

A City Drowned

After Katrina, the Corps said that all of its failed floodwalls had been overtopped by a hurricane too powerful for the Category 3 protection authorized by Congress, while Bush's critics said the administration's budget cuts had hamstrung the Corps.

Both were wrong. Katrina was no stronger than a Category 2 when it hit New Orleans, and many Corps levees collapsed even though they were not overtopped. Bush's proposed budget cuts were largely ignored, and were mostly irrelevant to the city's flood protection. New Orleans was betrayed by the Corps and its friends in Congress.

The Corps helped set the stage for the disaster decades ago by imprisoning the Mississippi River behind giant levees. Those levees helped protect St. Louis, Memphis and even New Orleans from river flooding, but they also reduced the amount of silt the river carries to its delta, curtailing the land-building process that creates marshes and swamps along the Louisiana coast. Those wetlands serve as hurricane speed bumps -- in Katrina, levees with natural buffers had much higher survival rates -- but they have been vanishing at a rate of 24 square miles per year.

After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the Corps also began building levees to protect the city from the Gulf of Mexico, but its misguided plan led to even more destruction during Katrina. The Corps put most of its levees around undeveloped and highly vulnerable floodplains instead of focusing on protection for existing developments -- partly because Corps cost-benefit analyses did not consider the cost of human life or environmental degradation, and partly because powerful developers owned swampland in those vulnerable floodplains. Katrina destroyed many of the houses built on those former swamplands.

The Louisiana delegation and the Corps also deserve blame for the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, an alternative shipping route to the Port of New Orleans. The outlet was always popular with port officials and a few shipping executives, but it destroyed more than 20,000 acres of wetlands, created a "hurricane superhighway" into the city and never attracted much traffic. Now computer models suggest it amplified Katrina's surge by two feet.

And the outlet was only the most destructive of the pork projects the Corps has been building in Louisiana when it should have been upgrading levees and pursuing its plan to restore the state's coastal wetlands. In 2000, I described how the Corps had spent $2 billion wrestling the wild Red River into a slack-water barge channel that wasn't being used by any barges; four of its dams had been named for Louisiana members of Congress, and the entire channel had been named for former Louisiana senator J. Bennett Johnston (D). The Corps was also spending $750 million to build a lock that was supposedly needed to accommodate increasing barge traffic on the New Orleans Industrial Canal -- even though barge traffic was steadily decreasing. The Corps spent $1.9 billion in Louisiana in the five years before Katrina, more than it spent in any other state. But all that money didn't keep New Orleans dry.

Ever since Katrina, independent engineers have been pointing out grave problems with the Corps levee designs, and criticizing the agency for building on unstable soils. In congressional testimony last month, Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock, the commander of the Corps, finally acknowledged "design flaws." But his damning admission got nowhere near as much attention as former FEMA director Michael Brown's e-mail about being a "fashion god."

Where's the Outrage?

So why aren't Americans angry? Because water resources policy is so boring? Because they're counting on the Corps to protect New Orleans from the next storm? Because they assume all the other Corps flood-control projects are properly designed and constructed?

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) are pushing a Corps reform bill that would require independent reviews of large projects, but they aren't getting much traction. By contrast, 81 senators have urged swift passage of a bill approving $12 billion in new Corps projects. And the Louisiana delegation has tried to use Katrina to pour billions into unrelated Corps pork, including a port-deepening project that even the Corps concluded would return just 30 cents on every taxpayer dollar.

Meanwhile, the Corps is rebuilding its New Orleans levees to mere Category 3 levels.

Maybe Americans will get angry after the next disaster.

grunwaldmr@washpost.com

Michael Grunwald is a Washington Post staff writer.

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