Congressman Oberstar Rails Against Army Corps' Reluctant Reforms
On March 3rd, Democrats and Republicans took the senior brass of the Army Corps of Engineers to task for what they say has been the corps' hesitant implementation of reforms mandated by Congress more than two years ago.
Those reforms, included as part of the 2007 Water Resources Development Act, sought to revise how the corps tackles issues such as environmental mitigation, external review of controversial projects and project selection criteria that account for sustainable development practices. But rather than moving forward with these reforms, the Army Corps has proven as fixed as a granite boulder in a weak stream, according to a report by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.).
"Rather than swiftly and quickly embracing the reforms of WRDA '07, the corps has been slow to implement," Oberstar said at a hearing yesterday. "And it has not followed the right minding of the statute and congressional intent."
Oberstar's frustration partially stems from the decision of the Obama administration last year to have the Council on Environmental Quality take over preparation of new standards for all federal water projects, pre-empting corps efforts that began after the congressional mandate. A draft of the standards was released by the White House in December and remains open for comment (Greenwire, Dec. 3, 2009).
The CEQ standards, which will be forwarded to the National Academy of Sciences for further review, seek to elevate the environmental impacts of water projects to equal footing with traditional cost-benefit economic calculations. That raised concern from Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.) that the goal of avoiding adverse impacts to ecosystems could prevent nearly any water infrastructure project from moving forward.
While the corps and other federal agencies using the updated guidelines would consider environmental effects, such concerns will be balanced with the need for economic development, said Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant Army secretary for civil works. "I don't think any alternative will be taken off the table," she said.
The Army Corps has entered a new era of collaboration with CEQ, Darcy added. "We as an agency are in constant communication with the council," she said. "We have been collaborating with CEQ more than this agency ever has in the past."
While the agencies may be in communication, independent water experts complained that, since the review was overtaken by CEQ, the rulemaking process has become less transparent. While face-to-face meetings occurred when the corps led the project, the rulemaking has since become more a matter of correspondence, said Brian Pallasch, co-chair of the Water Resources Coalition, a collection of industry and governmental groups committed to developing a comprehensive national water policy.
"Under CEQ," Pallasch said, "it's more of a closed process."
The coalition welcomed the elevation of environmental considerations, but equally important are public safety concerns and the resilience of water projects, Pallasch added. Such provisions must be given equal footing to economic development and environmental impact, he said.
The draft rules also contain a bias for nonstructural approaches to flood plain usage, said Amy Larson, the president of the National Waterways Conference, which represents a variety of businesses that use the country's river systems.
"Overall, the navigation mission and the flood control mission are regulated to second class in this document," Larson said.
Beyond the CEQ rules, the corps has also been tardy in implementing other aspects of WRDA, according to the committee's report and testimony from regional water officials and experts.
WRDA ordered the corps to conduct independent review of large or controversial projects, but the agency's implementation of these reports has been opaque and inaccessible, said David Conrad, a water expert at the National Wildlife Federation.
"On the ground, we find the process weakly implemented, and it is almost completely out of public sight," Conrad said, adding that there was a near universal lack of awareness and involvement in the processes.
Also, mandates that mitigation of environmental impact be considered before beginning any project have been "effectively ignored," Oberstar's report said.
The National Wildlife Federation is extremely concerned that compliance with the mitigation provisions seems to be lagging, Conrad said.
"The corps has made little progress with even the most basic of the mitigation reforms," he added.
Progress on mitigation is under way, and the corps has strengthened the requirements for developing and reporting adaptive management plans, Darcy said. The plans will be subject to Washington-level review, she added.