Stymied for years by a tight federal budget, Congress is poised to pass a new water resources development bill with big money for favored projects and, for the first time, some very odd provisions as well. Sold by our delegation that these projects have been stymied by environmental delays the bill places the Army Corps of Engineers in charge of all reviews, including water quality and endangered species, and then limits the input of expert agencies with near-impossible deadlines. In a Draconian twist, the bill then fines environmental agencies $20,000 per day if they come in late.
For those of us involved in water resource planning, this is an assault in search of a reason. No one could say with a straight face that environmental review has frustrated any water project in this state (save a misbegotten harbor lock). Indeed, post-Katrina, these reviews have been expedited with record speed. No endangered species has stopped a project in Louisiana — ever. More strange still, after hearings in which Louisiana witnesses pilloried the Corps, the bill now gives it the full portfolio.
The poster child for environmental delay was said to be the Morganza levee project, a 75-mile, $15 billion Goliath enclosing over 100,000 acres of wetlands to be built on sinking muck at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. It was up for funding a few years ago, with a price tag of only $700 million. Then came Katrina. Smelling a rat, Congress called for a restudy of the price, which came in astronomically higher and gave reason for pause. Subsoil realities, engineering requirements and soaring costs, not environmental issues, slowed down Morganza.
The fact is that serious environmental review takes time and can pay huge dividends. A restudy of the Atchafalaya floodway in the l970s revealed that the project could not work and that a better way was available. That better way has saved New Orleans from Mississippi floodwaters two separate times.
In reverse, one has only to look at the MRGO, which destroyed much of St. Bernard over the years and then ushered both Katrina and then Rita into New Orleans. As noted in a subsequent trial, the Corps avoided environmental review while the canal was caving around its feet. Had the risks of this project seen the light of day, it might well have been shut down in time, avoiding catastrophic losses.
Our congressional delegation has gone too far. It may well succeed. These bills have enormous momentum behind them. But its environmental provisions will be poison to a state where independent thinking is at a premium. Gagging the messenger is a bad idea.
Oliver A. Houck
professor of law, Tulane University