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Corps Criticized for Encouraging Vulnerable Building

LYNN NEARY, host:

When lawmakers return to Washington next week the Senate will likely turn to the subject of water. It needs to pass a massive bill - the Water Resources Development Act. It chooses future water projects to be built by the Army Corps of Engineers.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And some Senators see this as a chance to do what watchdog groups and even a succession of presidents have wanted to do for years - that's make a fundamental change in the way the Corps decides what to build and where to build it.

Critics say Hurricane Katrina exposed the costs in both money and lives of business as usual. NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH reporting:

Sherwood Gagliano(ph) is standing in New Orleans East in the very spot he remembers visiting with his dad back when he was a kid.

Mr. SHERWOOD GAGLIANO (New Orleans Resident): My father would take me to on field trips on weekends. And one of our favorite field trips was to come and launch a pirogue, which is a small canoe-type vessel, and maneuver out through some vast marshes. It was open, you could see for miles. But it's totally different - a totally different landscape than it was 50 years.

SCHALCH: Today, Gagliano looks out at a vast, flat suburb. It stretches for miles, block after block of modest homes arranged on a grid. It's now silent, mostly ruined and abandoned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Environmentalists say there's a bitter irony here. If it weren't for the Army Corps of Engineers and its mandate to control flooding, most of these flooded homes wouldn't have been built in the first place. The land was too soggy and flood-prone. Then, Hurricane Betsy battered New Orleans.

That's when Congress and the Corps stepped in, says Tim Searchinger, a senior attorney at Environmental Defense.

Mr. TIM SEARCHINGER (Senior Attorney, Environmental Defense): Congress said to the Corps of Engineers, we need to protect New Orleans itself better. And the Corps came back with a plan that also included building levees into virgin wetlands east of the city in order to encourage new development.

SCHALCH: And Searchinger says that's what the Corps was supposed to do. Flood control isn't just about protecting people and buildings already in harm's way, it's also meant to help the economy by doing everything from creating jobs to draining more land to grow crops.

Mr. SEARCHINGER: Part of the problem is that Congress has defined flood control in this very broad way. It's really a development subsidy. Another problem is it's very easy to justify a flood control project. The Corps of Engineers simply has to find that the benefits to anybody - to developers, for example -exceed the cost of taxpayers by one cent.

SCHALCH: And Searchinger says the downside, the risk that swamps and flood-prone farm fields will turn into densely populated disaster areas some time in the future, isn't factored into that equation.

Mr. SEARCHINGER: Taxpayers pay to build the levees. Taxpayers pay for disaster relief when they're overtopped. And then taxpayers typically pay to try to build the levee even bigger afterward.

SCHALCH: Pete Sepp, of the National Taxpayers Union, has the same complaint. He also objects to the way projects get picked.

Mr. PETE SEPP (Vice President of Communications, National Taxpayers Union): Some member of Congress may get an idea from local constituents to drain an area that would allow it to be developed for a shopping mall. Then the Corps of Engineers is ordered to study the project.

SCHALCH: The lawmaker may pressure the Corps to approve the project, he says.

Mr. SEPP: Then the member of Congress who started this in the first place can say, ah-ha! We have the Army Corps of Engineers backing for this project so the experts say this can be done.

SCHALCH: Congress can then add it to the list and then decide whether or not to fund it. Lawmakers all want to bring home the bacon to their own districts, so critics say it's hard to prioritize to make sure urgent projects get built and questionable ones get scrapped.

Critics say Katrina revealed how this can be not just wasteful but deadly. Before the hurricane, experts knew New Orleans was vulnerable to catastrophic flooding and needed to beef up its levees. It didn't happen, says Tim Searchinger, of Environmental Defense, even though in the five years before Katrina, Louisiana received more money for water projects than any other state.

Mr. SEARCHINGER: Frankly, everybody was busy building other projects, in most cases, projects that were just going to help make somebody money.

SCHALCH: Environmental and taxpayer groups have gotten the ear of Congress. The Senate will soon debate a massive water bill and could change the rules for future projects, to discourage the ones that could inadvertently lure more people into harm's way.

Arizona Republican John McCain and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold want to go further. They're calling for more independent peer review of projects and an expert panel to advise Congress on which projects to fund. And they want to take a new look at the nearly $60 billion worth of projects that have been approved but haven't been built yet.

Pete Sepp, of the National Taxpayers Union, says this is key.

Mr. SEPP: With such a large backlog of projects, some of which have been authorized years ago, the economic and environmental circumstances surrounding many of them may have changed and so it no longer makes sense to either build them at all or build them in the same way.

SCHALCH: Worth Hager, President of the National Waterways Conference, is skeptical. Taxpayer and environmental have been criticizing the Corps for decades, and Hager suspects their real agenda is to stop the Corps from building anything. She says much of the criticism is unfair and outdated.

Ms. WORTH HAGER (President, National Waterways Conference): People have not understood that the Corps of Engineers has taken really, really deliberate steps to fix what processes were somewhat lacking.

SCHALCH: For instance...

Ms. HAGER: They already do independent peer review when it is needed.

SCHALCH: And she says before it approves a project, the Corps typically churns out thousands of pages of feasibility studies, cost benefit analyses and environmental impact assessments. The process can drag on for years, and the projects only approved if it meets strict criteria.

Ms. HAGER: If it has a positive cost benefit ratio, if it has a local sponsor who's willing to pay their share, if it is in the federal interest.

SCHALCH: Hager says layering on more requirements could delay all sorts of projects that everyone agrees are needed and add to the cost.

Ms. HAGER: The longer you wait, the worse the situation is going to get.

SCHALCH: But critics of the Corps, like Tim Searchinger, say they're hoping Congress will seize the moment.

Mr. SEARCHINGER: If Congress doesn't reform the flood control system, with all the evidence of Katrina staring at it in the face, it's kind of hard to figure out when it might do so.

SCHALCH: But it may be asking a lot. Lawmakers like being able to spend federal money in their own districts the way they want to, and they won't give up that prerogative lightly. The vote's expected to be close.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kathleen Schalch
Kathleen Schalch is a general assignment reporter on NPR's national desk. Her coverage can be heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.