Independent Review of the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers: How Oversight May Help the Flow (01/08)

The following column by AGI/AIPG Geoscience & Public Policy Intern Sargon de Jesus is reprinted from the January/February 2008 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.

As record rainfall and accompanying floods hit Texas and New England this year, the nation renews its attention on water management issues. These concerns are a call to arms for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the 35,000-memberstrong federal agency in charge of water development projects. With hundreds of projects underway across the country, the Army Corps directs construction of civil engineering ventures such as dams, levees, and infrastructural support for the military. The well-publicized failures of the Corps-built levees around New Orleans during hurricane Katrina have heightened congressional oversight of Corps projects and brought renewed efforts to require independent reviews of their work.

The 110th Congress is tackling oversight of Corps projects and whether there needs to be independent review of large projects in the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2007. WRDA is a typically biennial act that authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers to take on particular water development projects across the country. The act represents the closest legislation we have to a nation-wide water resources management policy. The last few Congresses have not been able to pass a renewal of WRDA, so no version of the bill has been put into law since 2000. This lag time, coupled with the ongoing reconstruction needs along the Gulf Coast, promises that any passage of WRDA in 2007 will have substantially greater costs than the 2000 version. Congressman James Oberstar (D-MN) introduced the 2007 WRDA in March; both chambers have passed a version of the bill, and a conference committee issued its report in the final days before the August recess. Conference members laud the breadth of the bill, which addresses major water management problems across the country such as post-Katrina Louisiana, flood-vulnerable Sacramento, and the Everglades. However, the price tag of the bill has ballooned from an original $13.9 billion to $21 billion after conference, raising concerns about spending as the bill authorizes more than 900 projects in 49 states and the District.

Congress understands the necessity of passing the 2007 WRDA and support remains strong. The House passed the post-conference version of the bill by a vote of 381-40, as nearly all Democrats and most Republicans rallied to its cause. The Senate has yet to vote on the revised bill. Even if Congress approves of the bill in the fall, President Bush has promised to veto the legislation due to its massive cost and because he does not consider some of the projects which are earmarked for specific districts to be high national priorities or well designed. Surprisingly, in his opposition to the newest version of the bill, Bush has found an unlikely ally in Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), who urges the President to follow through with the veto should WRDA make it to his desk as-is. Though originally supporting the bill, Feingold finds the reworked version to have considerably weakened the independent peer review process that was written into the legislation.

Past difficulties in the Army Corps bolster the case for a robust independent review process. Over the last decade dozens of reports, from groups such as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the National Academies of Sciences (NAS), have shed light on the Corps' poor management and execution of projects. The reports also cite little oversight, as the basic review only takes place within the Corps itself and suggest independent review might be helpful. A 2002 NAS report, ordered by the WRDA of 2000, urged that "an independent organization must be in charge of selecting reviewers" and that it "should not be selected by the Corps." Critics of independent review indicate the process will just further delay projects and create a bureaucratic mess. Yet, because of the backlog of currently authorized projects, the delay in implementing new projects caused by review may not be a major issue and may not delay new projects which will not be initiated for some time anyway. Other proponents suggest that an independent review process could take place during the same time as the mandatory public comment period, thereby eliminating any delays altogether. As a result, the principal drawback to instituting independent review would be the cost of the panel, which would be figured into the cost of the project itself.

The proposed legislation requires independent review if the project deems a review process worthwhile, or if the project costs more than $45 million. An effective independent review process ensures Corps accountability and adherence to federal regulation, such as the Clean Water Act. Although the proposed forms of independent review would be advisory in nature and unenforceable, the recommendations of the panel would serve to provide key advice for Corps technicians. However, all parties involved in a Corps independent review would be held accountable by Congress should a project fail. Furthermore, an independent review process could increase the credibility and confidence that the public has in Army Corps projects.

Proponents of a robust independent review process have reason for concern about the current reworked legislation. Changes grant the Chief of Engineers a significant role in determining how the members of the independent panel are selected. The Chief now becomes the direct official who selects the body that will then handpick the members of the review panel. This lingering conflict of interest violates the spirit and efficacy of an independent review panel. Decision making involving a member of the Corps could spoil the credibility of an independent review.

Feingold's determination to enact Corps reform has continued since the 1990s in the form of a host of different amendments attached to WRDA bills. In fact, Feingold is by no means alone in his persistence. Earlier this year, he co-sponsored a bill with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) to better prioritize Corps projects and to establish a Director of Independent Peer Review appointed by the Secretary of the Navy. While that particular bill stalled in committee, McCain and Feingold have a history of proposing similar amendments in WRDA legislation and have built significant bipartisan support.

While the ultimate passage of WRDA may still hang in the balance primarily because of its $21 billion cost, the inclusion and shape of any independent review also remains a significant issue for policymakers, the geoscience community, and the nation. Independent review conducted by an unbiased, respected, and apolitical committee of relevant experts could help to ensure that projects are well designed, cost effective and meet appropriate engineering, environmental and safety standards. These benefits of independent review may far outweigh any potential added costs or delays that may result. At the very least independent review establishes accountability for the Corps, which has the burdensome but necessary responsibility to keep our waterways and communities safe from disaster.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted December 3, 2007

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