Corps of the problem

A conventional wisdom about the events that followed hurricane Katrina has already emerged, but wisdom often lags behind convention in these national debates about sudden tragedy. After Columbine, for instance, many of the pop prescriptions that found their way into public policy—such as putting the blame on video games and Marilyn Manson—were later found to be bogus. (Inspection of the two alleged killers’ personal computer records showed they had contempt for Manson.) It is important that no congressional action be taken on the basis of early, uncooked coverage of the Louisiana tragedy.

For instance, some have called for an increase in funding for the Army Corps of Engineers. That would be a terrible mistake. There is evidence that the Corps bears much of the responsibility for what happened as a result of Katrina. It used funds allocated to Louisiana operations for projects that did nothing to protect the state. Five years ago, the organization Environmental Defense raised warnings about the profligate Corps spending ($2 billion) on the Red River Waterway project, money that would’ve been better spent on reinforcing levees or restoring wetlands that once helped shield the state from the impact of hurricanes.

A good place to start in dealing with Katrina would be to enact legislation to reform the Corps that was proposed long before this disaster. U.S. Sen. Russell Feingold sponsored legislation in 2001 and again last year to install protections against troubling Corps practices—the Corps inflated Red River traffic figures—and to prevent projects going over budget. This would also help protect the Corps from congressional pork barreling. This year, John McCain lent his name to the bill as cosponsor.

It is important to reform the Corps before letting it have a hand in rebuilding Louisiana because periods like the present are the times when it uses its lobbying in Congress to increase its clout and budget. Water historian Marc Reisner recorded how, after one California flood, the Corps was “issuing statements expressing profound dismay while they privately rubbed their hands with glee” over its chances for parlaying a tragedy into more funding for a binge of building. And the fact that the Corps is very cozy with Halliburton is one more cause for concern.

It would also be a good idea to take the Corps out of the military. Besides removing Donald Rumsfeld from the top of its food chain, the fact is that fewer than a thousand of the Corps’ 35,000 employees are military.

A final reason not to throw money at the Corps is that the agency still lives in the 20th century—that period when dam building and dredging was all the rage, and rivers were to be manipulated instead of protected. The Corps has had a particular obsession with turning rivers into barge freeways—"an obsession it has been pursuing on virtually every large river in the country,” as Reisner wrote.

Some critics are already talking about turning FEMA responsibilities over to the Corps, which would be like turning anti-trust enforcement over to Microsoft.

No Western senator is more savvy on water issues than U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, and we hope he will bring all his expertise to bear on making the Corps into a 21st century agency.