Congress Begins Process of Reforming the Corps

The legislation being sent to the President would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to update its obsolete planning guidelines, strengthen its mitigation standards, and place a stronger emphasis on protecting floodplains and other natural resources that specify how the Corps evaluates specific projects. The bill also would require the Corps to do a much better job of replacing habitat lost to its projects. The Corps now routinely ignores the basic wetlands mitigation standards that the agency applies to projects proposed by private citizens. The bill also would establish a new policy that gives a stronger emphasis on protecting the environment and the natural systems that provide critical natural flood protection to communities. It also directs that there be a comprehensive study of the nation’s flood risks and flood management programs. These changes will help move the Corps towards planning and constructing projects that will better protect the environment and serve the public interest.

However, it is clear that the job of reforming the Corps in a way that meaningfully responds to the lessons of Hurricane Katrina as well as independent investigations by the Government Accountability Office, National Academy of Sciences, and other institutions is far from finished. In a statement on the conference report, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) a tireless leader on Corps reform called on Congress to immediately strengthen the provisions in the conference report and enact additional reforms.

The Corps is the nation’s primary river management agency, but the quality of its work has been under fire by government and independent experts for decades. In 2006, the Government Accountability Office told Congress that Corps studies were so flawed that they could not provide a reasonable basis for making water resource planning decisions. The dangers of flawed planning were made tragically clear when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans. The Corps has acknowledged that the levee and floodwall failures that led to the flooding of much of New Orleans were caused by the Corps’ flawed design and construction. Corps projects also destroyed vital coastal wetlands that could have reduced the Hurricane’s storm surge, and funneled that surge into the heart of New Orleans.

Given this history, American Rivers was a strong advocate for including the robust independent review provision that Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI), John McCain (R-AZ), and others had twice secured in the Senate version of the WRDA bill. The bill Congress has sent to President strips out important safeguards that were in the Senate-passed bill that would have ensured greater accountability and prevented the Corps from manipulating the review process. Without these safeguards, the project review process will not fully protect communities, taxpayers, and the environment. The conference report also excludes independent review of most studies that are currently underway even those that will take years to complete and inexplicably sunsets after seven years. The limited number of studies that will be covered by the review provision also means that the vast majority of Corps projects will not receive even this less-than-independent outside review.

American Rivers urges Congress to seek improvements in the next WRDA that correct the failings of the independent review provision; develop an effective process for prioritizing Corps projects; and ensure that the Corps confronts and responds to the realities of global warming. Given the more frequent and intense hurricanes, sea level rise and flooding that scientists predict as a result of climate change, it’s essential that the fiscal and environmental practices of the Corps continually evolve to meet the needs of the nation.

American Rivers also calls on Congress to carry out a series of comprehensive oversight hearings to ensure that the independent review provision and the other reform provisions in the conference report are properly implemented by the Corps and funded by Congress and the Administration. The American people and the environment deserve no less.

The gains in WRDA 2007 would not have been possible without the critical and tireless leadership of Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI) and John McCain (R-AZ) who have long championed reforming the Corps. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN), and Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) also deserve praise for improving key aspects of how the Corps operates.


Contact: Melissa Samet, American Rivers, (415) 482-8150

American Rivers is the only national organization standing up for healthy rivers so our communities can thrive. Through national advocacy, innovative solutions and our growing network of strategic partners, we protect and promote our rivers as valuable community assets that are vital to our health, safety and quality of life. Founded in 1973, American Rivers has more than 65,000 members and online supporters nationwide, with offices in Washington, DC and the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, California and Northwest regions.