Has Congress become better stewards of our rivers over the last 100 years?
By Brad Walker, Rivers Director September 4, 2014
For those not familiar with the Water Resources Development Act, it is the legislation that authorizes the Corps of Engineers’ work on the major rivers of our nation. WRDAs have been enacted since 1974 and were the evolution of what was called the River and Harbor Acts that were enacted between 1824 and 1970. Both of these legislations have had an immense impact upon the health of our rivers, primarily in a negative way, for the almost exclusive purpose of exploiting them for economic development. It was not until the 1986 WRDA that there was any significant environmental concern through restoration efforts incorporated into the Corps mission.[table “2” not found /]
In June 2014 Congress overwhelmingly passed the 2014 WRDA, which the President quickly signed into law. We talked about this WRDA in previous articles here and here last year. Most environmental and tax watchdog groups believe it is the worst WRDA ever. Business interests appear to love it. Not a surprise since environmental and tax watchdog groups were completely shut out of its drafting. So, how does the 2014 WRDA compare with the last WRDA Congress produced in 2007?
In spring 2008 I drafted an article reviewing the 2007 WRDA that was never printed but provides a snap shot of what I thought of that last WRDA. The articles opening paragraph is below:
The 2007 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), at $23 billion, is a strong signal of the serious problems with the process, both within the Corps of Engineers and Congress. The bill increases the backlog to well over 1000 projects estimated to cost nearly $80 billion that could take up to 40 years to clear at an annual construction appropriation level of $2 to $2.5 billion.
From just a cost perspective, little, if any, of the at least $23 billion required to go forward with the projects authorized in 2007 has been appropriated; they are essentially just expensive studies sitting on a shelf waiting funding from a source that does not currently exist. The 2014 WRDA essentially “doubles-down” on further increasing the Corps’ backlog by authorizing an estimated total cost of $26 billion ($16 billion from the taxpayers) more for projects we cannot afford to build, let alone maintain.
Although the 2007 WRDA authorized the expansion of navigation facilities on the UMR it also included actual attempts to improve the environment authorizing major restoration projects in the Florida Everglades, Louisiana Delta, Missouri River, and Upper Mississippi River region while requiring the reforming of the Water Resources Principles and Guidelines (P&G’s) that the Corps uses to develop and plan new projects. The following is the actual wording of the first item in section 2031 of the Act:
(a) National Water Resources Planning Policy- It is the policy of the United States that all water resources projects should reflect national priorities, encourage economic development, and protect the environment by–
(1) seeking to maximize sustainable economic development;
(2) seeking to avoid the unwise use of floodplains and flood-prone areas and minimizing adverse impacts and vulnerabilities in any case in which a floodplain or flood-prone area must be used; and
(3) protecting and restoring the functions of natural systems and mitigating any unavoidable damage to natural systems.
The WRDA reform requirement outlined above was completely ignored by the Bush Administration, but the Obama Administration did draft improvements to the P&G’s, which are in the final stages of the review process and were expanded beyond just the Corps of Engineers to include all agencies that impact water resources.
Unfortunately, the current Congress has no desire to fix our ever increasing environmental problems and has placed obstacles (page 19) in the way of incorporating the new P&G’s. Concurrently, over the last several years Congress has made varying levels of cuts to portions of the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Service. These agencies have a responsibility to review and approve Corps of Engineers’ projects from an environmental perspective and these cuts have affected their staffing. Congress went further by incorporating their own set of “reforms” into the 2014 WR(R)DA, which circumvents existing bedrock environmental laws including the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, and the Clean Water Act. They do this by undermining mandated project document reviews per these laws, placing time and cost restrictions on other agencies’ reviews, and reducing public participation. These changes are all allegedly to improve the process efficiency (in reality meaning reducing the time allowed for and opposition of project review and approval).
Congress used 10-1/2 pages of text in the new WRDA to impose the above described “Project Acceleration” mandate upon all reviewing federal agencies, except for the Corps of Engineers, 4-1/2 pages of it outlining deadlines and up to $20,000/week fines. Compare that to the $525 million transfer of wealth from the U.S. taxpayers to the navigation industry for the bailout of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF) to cover the quadrupled price of the Olmsted Locks and Dam on the Ohio River. Congress managed to accomplish that transfer in a mere 49 innocuous words within the new WRDA (quoted in full at the end of this article). This is an all too common occurrence where Congress circumvents good policy and common sense by inserting vague, unaccountable amendments or alterations to existing legislation.
The Dysfunctionality of the WRDA Process
Congress’s lack of expertise: It is apparent that the primary dysfunctionality of the WRDA process lies with Congress, not the Corps of Engineers. The list of problems begins with Congressional members being professionally unqualified to make project-level water resources decisions. Few members have the technical background to adequately understand the projects or how watersheds and rivers function and Congressional experience does not replace the lack of that essential technical knowledge. Their efforts to get projects authorized in their districts or states are actually political mischief to help them get re-elected because they know that most WRDA projects will never be built.
Special-interest influence: Next on the list of Congressional member’s deficiencies is that far too often they are heavily influenced by special interests that benefit from specific projects. Professional lobbyists working for corporations or business interests are not visiting elected officials in the national and state capitols because of their love of democracy. They do it to gain competitive and economic advantages for their employers who are also not shy about contributing to political campaigns.
Lack of Congressional self-evaluation: Within the WRDA process Congress does not do any evaluation of the impacts, including the value of authorizing projects far beyond the financial capabilities of the nation and whether a completed WRDA-authorized project was actually worth building. Having a backlog of Corps of Engineers’ projects in the neighborhood of 30 or 40 times their annual construction budget is a major inefficiency factor. The limited construction funds are divvied up between too many projects to efficiently complete in a reasonable time frame, delaying them and increasing their costs. The incomplete $3+ billion Olmsted Locks and Dam (the reason for the IWTF bailout discussed above) on the Ohio River is an extreme example of this; though its timely completion has also been significantly impacted by the barge industries unwillingness to provide adequate financial support to the navigation infrastructure it completely depends upon.
Lack of post-project evaluations: Finally, while Congress projects the image of fiscal responsibility regarding budgets, however as is documented above, when it comes to navigation projects on our rivers that is a distracting façade. Congress allows bad projects to continue to be built by not requiring “after construction reviews” of major WRDA projects in order to determine whether they have been a public benefit or a waste of the taxpayers’ hard earned money. It is, in fact, difficult to find an inland waterways project that has generated enough barge traffic volume to justify even the typically underestimated original project cost.
It makes one wonder who Congress really answers to, the public who derive little or no benefit from most WRDA projects or the special interests who benefit from those projects yet contribute little to their costs. The return on influencing votes must be far better than having to pay for concrete and steel.
I can only draw the conclusion that I do not believe that the WRDA process has improved, or ever will improve as long as Congress’ parochial control influences the entire process. The WRDA process as it exists needs to be scrapped and replaced with a new process (see sidebar – What A Solution Looks Like) that will eliminate, or at least greatly minimize, the above dysfunctionalities.[table “3” not found /]
(2) OLMSTED PROJECT REFORM.-Notwithstanding section 3(a)(6) of the Water Resources Development Act of 1988 (102Stat. 4013), for each fiscal year beginning after September 30,2014, 15 percent of the cost of construction for the Olmsted Project shall be paid from amounts appropriated from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. [49 words on page 77 of WRRDA]