In July 1969, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas declared the Army Corps of Engineers America's "public enemy number one." In an exhaustive screed in a national magazine, he detailed how the Corps had plundered the U.S. environment and ransacked the U.S. Treasury with preposterous water projects designed to keep its employees busy and its congressional patrons happy.
The magazine was 'Playboy,' which should give a sense of how much has changed since 1969. And so should this: After spending the 20th century trashing the landscape with dams and dredges, the Corps has been assigned to start cleaning up its mess, to resuscitate some of the rivers, marshes, and coastal swamps it has diverted, polluted, and desiccated.
The most prominent test of this turn-back-the-clock mandate is unfolding in the Florida Everglades, where the Corps is overseeing the largest environmental restoration project in history. It has been replumbing the Everglades with ditches and dikes since the 1930s, diverting and degrading the magical River of Grass. But in 2000, Congress approved a 4,000-page Corps plan to replumb the replumbing: an $8 (now $10) billion effort to revive the wetland ecosystem, an unprecedented rescue mission for panthers, gators, otters, and sportsmen. The project is already a model for ecosystem projects around the world, from the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay to the Pantanal of South America and the Garden of Eden marshes of Iraq.
Yet some things have not changed since 1969. The Corps still builds ecologically destructive boondoggles for special interests. It still has a dysfunctional relationship with the Capitol Hill politicians who use it to steer jobs and money to constituents and contributors. And its recent failures include killing 1,000 people in New Orleans. Even its multibillion-dollar shot at redemption, the 'Glades renewal, is behind schedule, over budget, and off-track. Meanwhile, the region remains vulnerable to flooding that could make the post-Katrina devastation seem like prologue rather than history.
The Army Corps of Engineers is one of the oldest, strangest, and most influential federal agencies. It got its start as an engineering regiment in the Revolutionary War; it's still run by army officers and still works on military projects, including the reconstruction of Iraq. But most of its 35,000-plus employees – more than the Education and Labor departments combined – are civilians working on domestic water projects. The Corps spends billions taming rivers for flood control and navigation, deepening ports, pouring sand onto beaches, chauffeuring salmon around its fish-killing dams, and exercising power wherever water is found in America. It's even responsible for protecting wetlands from development, even though it destroys more wetlands than any developer. Predictably, it approves almost every dredge-and-fill application it receives.