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For the U.S.'s water-resources system, these haphazard priorities are a feature, not a bug. The Corps is funded almost exclusively by earmarks, individual slices of pork requested by individual Congressmen. Since F.D.R., Presidents have routinely tried to rein in the agency, with little success. After the Program Growth scandal, the Clinton Administration issued a gentle reminder that Corps generals are supposed to report to their superiors in the Pentagon chain of command but speedily retracted it following a venomous outcry from their real superiors on Capitol Hill. President Bush keeps proposing zero funding for most of the Corps projects that taxpayer and environmental groups hate, but Congress continues to fund them anyway.
So the U.S. has no water-resources policy, just a ready-to-build water-resources agency whose agenda is dictated by an annual funding free-for-all among its 535 bosses. It's a classic example of Washington's iron triangle: commercial interests lobby the Corps and their Congressmen for projects that supply the Corps with work and political cover and help the Congressmen steer jobs and money to constituents and contributors. "It's a sinister system," says American Water Resources Association president Gerry Galloway, a former Army brigadier general who is now a visiting scholar at the Corps. "Water is a national-security issue, but we treat it like the Wild West. The big guns get the money."
Katrina didn't change that system. Louisiana Senators Vitter and Mary Landrieu promptly proposed a bloated quarter-trillion-dollar Louisiana reconstruction bill, drafted by lobbyists for oil, shipping and other corporate interests. The request included $40 billion for the Corps10 times the agency's budget for the rest of the nationincluding nonreconstruction projects like the Industrial Canal lock and a New Iberia port deepening that had flunked the Corps' cost-benefit tests. It also included pre-Katrina coastal levee schemes, with names like Morganza-to-the-Gulf and Donaldsonville-to-the-Gulf to suggest their grandiose sweep. The bill stalled after it was widely mocked as legislative looting, but it sent the message that pre-Katrina priorities were still in effect. Vitter kept pushing a measure to help timber companies harvest cypress swamps. Landrieu tucked language into emergency bills ordering the Corps to redo its New Iberia analysis and fast-tracking the Industrial Canal lock. "Katrina was just a perfect excuse to pull the old pork off the shelf in the name of otherwise-we-drown," says Tulane law professor Oliver Houck, the sage of Louisiana environmentalism. "And away we go: another Louisiana hayride."
The Path Forward
The hayride has not yet left the barn. Since Katrina, the Corps has focused on repairing and improving its New Orleans defenses: rebuilding or strengthening 220 miles of the city's 350 miles of levees (about 350 km of New Orleans' 560-km levee system), installing gigantic pumps and gates along the lake and releasing block-by-block maps to publicize lingering flood risks. Some engineers believe the new levees are still too short and weak"They're a frigging disgrace," U.C. Berkeley's Bea saysand the new pumps repeatedly malfunctioned during testing. But the Corps is about to unveil its plan for 100-year protection, with a rumored price tag of $15 billion, and the agency says that by 2011 the city will be safe from "severe storms," though not from storms as severe as Katrina. The Corps has even proposed to close the Gulf Outlet, a stunning turnaround after 40 years. "We're being much, much more conservative," says Thomas Podany, a Corps manager in New Orleans.
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