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Fixing What's Wrong with the Corps

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The U.S. Senate last week approved a water resources bill that contains significant benefits for Louisiana -- if the House goes along with the Senate's version of the measure. The Water Resources Development Act has taken years to pass, mostly because of disputes over provisions that some consider pork projects. While nothing is ever certain in Congress, the bill appears to have some momentum as it heads to a House-Senate conference committee, which could significantly rewrite the bill. Despite the uncertain future of the bill and the Louisiana projects that hang in the balance, there is much to cheer in the Senate's action last week.

For starters, senators approved an amendment offered by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., that would subject major projects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to review by independent experts. The threshold for external review would be $40 million, and each review would focus on engineering design, cost and environmental consequences. If the McCain-Feingold provision remains in the bill, it would bring badly needed reform to the Corps of Engineers. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the weaknesses of the Corps are even more glaring than the failures in the levee systems that the Corps designed and built. Of equal significance to the adoption of the McCain-Feingold amendment is the fact that senators rejected a rival "reform" proposal put forth by the Republican leadership that would have amounted to little more than window dressing. The McCain-Feingold oversight provision is by no means the endgame of Corps reform, but it represents a real start at fixing what's wrong with the Corps -- insularity, incompetence and arrogance.

Some opponents of the McCain-Feingold amendment argued that outside review could slow down a process that already seems to proceed at a glacial pace. Such fears are not unfounded. However, one of the hard-learned lessons of Katrina is the great danger posed by the Corps' ill-advised yet hard-headed reliance on seriously outdated data, design protocols and engineering standards. By subjecting the Corps to the equivalent of peer review, it is hoped that future projects will be designed and engineered better on the front end -- or else the agency will have to be shamed, or dragged, into the 21st century.

Recent reports here in New Orleans show just how badly this kind of review is needed. The Corps spent months and dumped millions into building floodgates at the mouths of three canals that drain the city into Lake Pontchartrain, but now Corps officials admit that once the floodgates are closed, the pumps they installed to keep pumping rainwater past the gates and into the lake are woefully inadequate. DUH! Does it really take an engineering genius to recognize that if drainage pumps send water into a canal at the rate of 9,000 cubic feet per second, pumps of similar capacity are needed at the other end of the canal once the canal is sealed off? We can only hope that the oversight and review process envisioned by the McCain-Feingold amendment will prevent this kind of insanity down the road.

Other key elements of the Senate-passed measure include the following:

• $175 million in grants and $200 million in loans to help relocate businesses along the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet or MR-GO. In the wake of Katrina, critics of the controversial waterway, which the Corps designed and built from the 1940s through the mid-'60s, have gained significant momentum in their decades-long fight to close the "Mister Go." They say it exacerbates hurricane storm surges and sends floodwaters pouring into eastern New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward.

• $1.1 billion for coastal restoration projects in Louisiana.

• A mandate for a Corps report by the end of 2008 on future coastal restoration projects identified by state officials. Those projects are estimated to cost more than $725 million -- but they could be authorized by House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over water projects without having to undergo scrutiny and approval by the full House and Senate.

• Authorization for corresponding House and Senate public works committees to green-light projects that the Corps has identified as part of a Category 5 hurricane-protection system mandated by Congress. Here again, allowing the appropriate committees to authorize important flood protection projects without subjecting them to protracted -- and overtly politicized -- congressional floor fights represents a huge step forward for Louisiana's hurricane-protection plans and hopes for coastal restoration.

• Creation of a five-member Louisiana Water Resources Council, the members of which will be experts in hurricane protection, coastal restoration, engineering and geology -- plus one Corps representative. The council will have "active oversight and peer review authority over all Corps projects in south Louisiana," says Louisiana's U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who convinced the Senate to adopt language creating the council.

These and other provisions of the Senate-passed measure are vital to Louisiana's ongoing efforts to improve flood protection and restore its coast. The House version of the water resources bill was adopted before Katrina and no doubt needs serious updating. We urge Congress to move quickly to reconcile the two versions of the bill -- and to keep the Senate's reforms in place. Throwing more money at the Corps is not the answer. Holding the agency accountable is the most important step towards protecting taxpayers' money, coastal communities and Louisiana's fragile coastline.

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