In the pantheon of dumb Army Corps of Engineers boondoggles, a $112 million flood-control scheme in Missouri's southeast bootheel ranks among the dumbest. It would drain more wetlands than all American developers drained last year, and the Corps has admitted that the town it's supposed to protect will flood just as often (once every 10 years) if and when it's completed. The Corps also admitted that its original economic rationale depended on a math error. In private e-mails, even the agency's top lobbyist described it as "an economic dud with huge environmental consequences."
Now a federal judge has made it official, shutting down work on the levee-and-pump project and ordering the Corps to undo the millions of dollars' worth of work it's already done. In an extraordinarily harsh opinion, D.C. District Court Judge James Robertson accused the Corps of cooking the books of the project's benefit-cost analysis in a desperate effort to justify construction: "More disturbingly," his opinion reads, "the Corps has demonstrated its willingness to do whatever it takes to proceed with this project."
The official motto of the Corps is "essayons," French for "let us try," but when it comes to large-scale construction projects pushed by friendly Congressmen, "whatever it takes" is closer to the mark. Independent investigations including one by the Pentagon's inspector general have repeatedly caught the Corps skewing its analyses to justify wasteful and destructive projects that keep its employees busy and its congressional patrons happy. The agency's manipulation of the Missouri project, Judge Robertson wrote, "gives new meaning to the phrase 'result-oriented decision making.'"
The Corps and the Department of Justice say they are reviewing their options. And the project's godparents on Capitol Hill, Republican Senator Christopher (Kit) Bond and Representative Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri, have quietly pushed a legislative provision that would exempt the project from the pesky environmental laws the Corps has been violating with such impunity. But it's long past time to kill this ugly beast not only to save money and wetlands, but to start saving the Corps.
The leaders of America's troubled water resources agency promised a new era of analytical honesty and environmental responsibility after their failures helped drown New Orleans two years ago, but it's impossible to take them seriously as long as they continue to defend the indefensible. In private e-mails that turned up during the lawsuit that Environmental Defense and the National Wildlife Federation filed to block the Missouri project, even Larry Prather, the agency's top lobbyist on Capitol Hill, complained that his agency has sacrificed its credibility by defending such "swine," comparing it to the Catholic Church defending abusive priests. Corps leaders like to blame Congress for their swine and when it comes to water projects, the Hill is a miraculously efficient pork factory but this agricultural drainage project masquerading as an urban flood-control project is a stark reminder of the complicity of the Corps.
The St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway project, falsely marketed as the salvation of the waterlogged city of East Prairie, makes swine look like pearls. Approved in 1954, then expanded in 1986, it would wall off the Mississippi River from the last surviving swath of bottomland hardwood floodplain in Missouri, draining an area larger than the District of Columbia. Its only real benefits would come from increased yields for a few well-connected corn and soybean farmers in the floodplain. Nevertheless, the plight of East Prairie persuaded Congress and the Clinton Administration to waive local cost-sharing requirements, so the feds are picking up the entire bill. A Corps official admitted under oath that a simple levee around East Prairie would do much more to protect the town at about one-tenth of the cost.
After visiting East Prairie in 2000, I used the project as Exhibit A for a series on Corps dysfunction in The Washington Post. The economic analysis the Corps had used to justify it was riddled with problems, including a discount rate from the Eisenhower Administration. The most egregious was a basic calculation error tantamount to confusing feet with meters that understated the cost of the necessary environmental mitigation by about $200 million. A few days before a crucial hearing in the lawsuit and two years after a Corps economist had admitted the error in a deposition the Corps abruptly agreed to redo its analysis.
Ultimately, Judge Robertson recognized that the Corps "obviously worked backwards from the mitigation dollars it could afford to make the project appear to return a positive benefit-cost ratio." The judge declared this "arbitrary and capricious" behavior, but there's nothing arbitrary about it; the Corps routinely manipulates its data in the name of moving dirt, pouring concrete and helping friendly politicians and powerful industries. In 2000, after it was caught cooking its books to justify a $1 billion navigation project on the Mississippi River as part of a Soviet-style "Program Growth Initiative," the Pentagon inspector general concluded that the Corps had a "systemic bias" toward large-scale construction. (The Corps went back to the drawing board, and recently proposed a $2 billion navigation project instead.) Everyone crazy enough to follow the Corps knows plenty of similar stinkers the agency continued to defend while it was neglecting to defend New Orleans, from a deepening of the Delaware River to a gargantuan flood pump in the Yazoo Delta.
But the problem is, there aren't too many of us crazies whether in the media or in government who watch the Corps closely enough. Judge Robertson's opinion sounded mystified as well as angry, as if he couldn't quite believe the Corps had been so flagrant. William Hoeveler, a federal judge in Miami, recently struck a similar tone "egregious," "unacceptable," "deeply disappointing" in a ruling rebuking the Corps for "pre-determining" an environmentally sensitive mining issue: "This case presents the first time in three decades of judicial service that this Court is left with the impression that a federal agency has exhibited a disregard for its duty."
The Bush Administration has made efforts to rein in the Corps, and it even shut down a ludicrous jetty project in North Carolina's Outer Banks. But it hasn't expended much political capital in those efforts, which is why it hasn't had much success. Senator Bond is the agency's most pugnacious defender in Congress, and it's not clear whether a lame-duck Administration will have the stomach to pick a fight with him over an obscure water project. Bush has threatened to veto Capitol Hill's latest $20 billion pork platter for the Corps but members of both parties have vowed an override.
There has been talk of "Corps reform" in Congress, especially independent reviews of the agency's water projects, but so far it's been nothing but talk. In the privacy of his own e-mail, Larry Prather understood the basic problem. "We have no strategy for saving ourselves," he wrote. "Someone needs to be supervising the Corps."