Officially, the Corps is a Pentagon agency, but it's really a congressional toy, with a budget consisting almost entirely of "earmarks" requested by members of Congress. President Bush, like every commander in chief since FDR, has tried to rein in the Corps, with little success; as Justice Douglas wrote, "Getting a man off heroin is easy compared with getting Congress off the kind of pork barrel the Corps administers." And pork knows no party lines; as Bush's former budget director Mitchell Daniels Jr. once complained in a memo after a congressional hearing on Corps bacon, "The festival was bipartisan." So the U.S. doesn't have a water resources policy, just pet projects. The Corps evaluates whether those projects make sense; if the answer is yes, the Corps gets to pour the cement. And the Corps likes to pour cement (its motto is Essayons, or "Let us try"), so the answer is usually yes.
In its heyday the Corps helped develop America. It imprisoned the Mississippi behind dikes, enabling cities like New Orleans to grow and prosper. It controlled the Everglades with 2,000 miles of levees and canals, transforming South Florida from backwater to megalopolis. It launched a national war against Mother Nature on behalf of economic prosperity. But controlling nature had hidden costs. The armoring of the Mississippi obliterated coastal wetlands that once served as hurricane shock absorbers for New Orleans. The replumbing of the Everglades nearly destroyed the South Florida ecosystem. Corps dams on the Snake River in the Pacific Northwest have decimated native salmon; Corps dredging of the Apalachicola River in northwestern Florida has threatened endangered mussels; Corps management of the Missouri River has nearly wiped out the pallid sturgeon, which had done fine for millions of years before the men of Essayons came along.
These unintended ecological impacts were problematic enough for projects with dramatic benefits. But more recent projects rarely make economic sense either. The Corps predicted that its Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway would cost $300 million and float 28 million tons of coal its first year; the actual totals were $2 billion and 1.4 million tons. And the Corps still manages the Missouri River for the barge industry, even though barges produce less than 1 percent of the river's economic benefits. Fishermen, bird-watchers, and ecologists – along with the EPA, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service – constantly complain about anachronistic Corps projects, but they don't have Corps juice.
I spent most of 2000 investigating Corps projects for the 'Washington Post,' from a plan to build the world's largest flood-control pump for Mississippi Senator Trent Lott (at a cost higher than the value of all the soybean farms it was designed to protect, according to one study) to a jetty project to protect private fishing trawlers for North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms (at a cost of $500,000 per boat, another report found). Corps leaders devised a secret "Program Growth Initiative," as if they were dot-com execs desperate to increase market share, and sent damning e-mails ordering aides to concoct a rationale for Mississippi River locks demanded by Missouri Senator Kit Bond. After brutal reports on the locks by Pentagon investigators and other agencies, the Corps was forced to redo its analysis of the $1.2 billion project. Soon it metastasized into a $7.7 billion project.
And then the Corps drowned New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina toppled Corps flood walls that were supposed to protect the city, the Corps hid behind the-act-of-God disaster and denied responsibility, so the media focused on FEMA's slow response to the flood. Eight months later, when the Corps finally admitted that "design failure" led to the collapses, Katrina was no longer front-page news. When Lieutenant General Carl Strock, the Corps commander, announced in August that he was retiring, it barely made the papers.
Katrina was a disaster of lousy priorities as well as lousy engineering. Corps projects helped destroy hundreds of square miles of marshes and cypress swamps that once provided the city's natural storm protection. And the Corps failed to provide adequate man-made protection, despite spending more money in Louisiana than in any other state in the five fiscal years before Katrina, because most of that money went to useless pork. A stone's throw from flood walls that failed along the Industrial Canal, the Corps was building a $750 million lock project justified by increasing ship traffic – even though ship traffic was decreasing. The Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet, another seldom-used Corps canal, served as a hurricane highway into New Orleans, amplifying Katrina's surge by two feet.
Needless to say, the catastrophe has persuaded Congress to…do nothing about the Corps. Senators John McCain of Arizona and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, the bipartisan team behind campaign finance reform, proposed a modest Corps reform bill last year, but that stalled. The Corps emerged from Katrina with even more power. And it has received 6,000 percent more money for fixing levees than restoring wetlands.
Yes, the corps has an estimated $14 billion plan to restore Louisiana wetlands, even more ambitious than the Everglades project. But has it seen the error of its ways, or has it just found a new way to keep busy? Former Corps commander Joe Ballard, who devised the Program Growth Initiative, once screamed at underlings to save the Everglades, "We have no choice! We must put our best foot forward. The future of the Corps depends on it!"
It's that "We have no choice!" that reminds you this will never be a Corps of Biologists. It's still an agency of builders, and it still responds to customers who want things built.
The Corps' Everglades plan had support from sugar farmers, developers, and every Florida politician, largely because it's a water storage project, with 180,000 acres of reservoirs designed to hold enough drinking water for double South Florida's population. But it's not clear if any of that water will get to the Everglades. Scientists at Everglades National Park have attacked the plan as a windfall for economic interests, with few benefits for the ecosystem and its 69 endangered species. And the Corps still gives permits to rock miners and developers who are digging up Everglades wetlands – even areas designated for restoration.
"It's crazy," says Shannon Estenoz, Sun Coast regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "Even when the Corps has a progressive mandate like 'restore the Everglades,' we often watch them buckle under pressure to compromise restoration."