Engineered to Fail

Engineered to Fail

The Army Corps of Engineers is caught in a web of competing political, commercial and environmental interests that impairs its ability to maintain and modernize the nation’s waterway infrastructure.

Already stretched thin, the corps now must spread those resources over a wider array of project obligations, leaving it without the money to accomplish much on any of them. The longer projects take to complete, the higher the cost, so the corps arguably is spending more to do less.

The corps built the nation’s waterway infrastructure — from dams for hydroelectric power, locks and dams for inland navigation, to levees for flood control — an infrastructure today that is crumbling.

Congress is working on the next Water Resources Development Act, the corps’ blueprint for navigation, water management and environmental protection projects. But for the corps to accomplish its missions, supporters and critics agree, all parties must find a way to break the gridlock.

“There needs to be a more rational way to allocate resources to corps projects,” said Fred Caver, former deputy director of corps civil works and now chairman of the National Waterways Conference. “It makes no sense whatsoever to build a billion-dollar lock and dam at a dollar-and-a-half a year.”

The corps’ annual construction budget hovers around $2.5 billion, but its backlog of authorized-but-unfunded projects has grown to an estimated $80 billion since the 2007 WRDA.

“The corps for many years has been operating with essentially a flat appropriation level, but projects continue to be authorized and come on line, which means more and more projects are competing for fewer dollars,” Caver said.

Parties on all sides say there are plenty of causes for the corps’ sorry state: Congress, the administration and interest groups that pursue their own agendas to the exclusion of others. Critics also say the corps itself must share the blame.

David Conrad, water resources specialist with the National Wildlife Federation, said the corps’ 38 local districts dilute the authority of Washington headquarters. The districts keep a steady stream of new projects flowing to members of Congress.

“There’s a symbiotic relationship between the corps and Congress,” Conrad said. “The corps will generate projects like there’s no tomorrow, and Congress will authorize just about anything in the Water Resources Development Act, then leave it up to the appropriations committees to sort out and fund whatever they want to. The process is decentralized so much, it’s like every man for himself.”

The corps is caught between the wishes of Congress and the administration, said Ret. Lt. Gen. Bob Flowers, who commanded the corps from 2000 to 2004. WRDA represents Congress’s list of priorities. If the White House disagrees, there is pressure on the corps to move funds to White House projects that didn’t get enough money.

WRDA is a two-step process. While the transportation committees in both houses of Congress authorize projects, it’s up to the appropriators to allocate funds. A large portion of the money is earmarked for specific projects. At one time, Flowers said, the chief of engineers had latitude to reprogram corps funds. In the 2003 WRDA, Congress tightened the reins under the banner of corps reform.

“You saw a lot of congressmen trying to ensure that the chief of engineers wouldn’t be able to move their money around,” Flowers said. “You get a budget and a list of projects to be done, and you never could match them up.”

He said he tried to redirect money to high-priority projects, but doing so almost guaranteed Congress would make life difficult. “We tried to efficiently conclude a couple of projects, and the result was Congress putting in language that said you can’t move these funds,” Flowers said. “You lost a lot of discretion, and that was a big inhibitor in your ability to be agile when you needed to be.”

The corps, he said, has a nemesis in the administration in the White House Office of Management and Budget, in part because the corps doesn’t have a seat at the Cabinet table. “Our Cabinet-level official is the secretary of defense, who has a lot more alligators biting at him than the civil works program of the Corps of Engineers,” Flowers said. “We’re a huge target, and OMB knows that the Congress is going to mess with the corps, so they’ll really take the knife to the corps budget, realizing that the Congress is probably going to turn around and plus it up.”

About the time Congress was putting clamps on the corps, environmental interests united to apply their own pressure. Their success, Caver said, hinged on making the corps the enemy. “They needed a devil,” he said. “And there was the Corps of Engineers.”

“When I was chief, I engaged as much as I could with environmental interests. I wanted to make sure we were doing what we had to do in as sustainable a way as we could,” Flowers said. “What I learned is that certain environmental groups, like the Nature Conservancy, were pretty good to work with. The Environmental Defense Fund and the Sierra Club were absolutely dangerous. They tried to subvert whatever you wanted to do. They needed a big, demon Corps of Engineers to fill their coffers.”

Conrad said the corps brings on some environmental resistance because of its lack of transparency. Groups had to demand release of environmental impact statements just to see how the corps was making its calculations.

“The corps is no longer permitted to do a project report that’s good enough. It has to be perfect,” Caver said. Any imperfection gives a project’s opponents another opportunity to block it. “It sets up a really unhealthy dynamic. Any imperfection, and a federal judge makes the corps go back and change the model.”

Navigation interests have contributed to the corps’ dilemma by focusing on inland waterway infrastructure to the exclusion of all else, Conrad said. In April, more than 140 shippers and barge operators threw their support to a capital improvement plan that would prioritize and fund navigation projects over the next 20 years. The plan didn’t appear in the 2010 WRDA that passed the House Transportation Infrastructure Committee late last month, but supporters say they aren’t giving up.

“It’s not a question of navigation or no navigation,” Conrad said. “Choices need to be made everywhere. The fact is that the system has become so unproductive and so totally political, instead of really focusing on meeting carefully identified needs for the nation.

“The next WRDA is going to have to start asking basic questions about setting priorities, or it won’t have the support it would need to happen,” he said.

Caver said Americans are generous when it comes to helping victims of a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, but are reluctant to consider making infrastructure improvements that might avert catastrophe.

“It would be a whole lot smarter if we spent a fraction of the response and recovery costs on capitalization of infrastructure and avoid problems in the future. But we don’t,” he said. “Until we as a society become adult enough to realize where investments need to be made in unsexy stuff like infrastructure, I suspect we’re going to continue on the path we’re on.”

The U.S., Flowers said, should develop a national water resources policy, something that could guide the corps and its projects, but “I don’t hold out much hope for ever seeing it is a national water policy. If nothing else, set some priorities.”

Adds Conrad: “The whole system cries out for leadership and real honest priority-setting on the national level. This process is not what it used to be, and it’s grinding to a halt.”

Contact R.G. Edmonson at