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Commentaries and editorials

House Bill Requires New Reviews
for Large Corps Projects

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 26, 2003

Feasibility studies conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers for major new construction projects would have to undergo independent expert review under a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives this week.

The new requirement is part of a package of reforms of the agency aimed at meeting criticism of past environmental and cost analyses for expensive and controversial flood control, dam, waterway and other projects. The provision would apply to future or recently initiated studies for projects and mitigation costing more than $50 million. The secretary of the army would be given authority to grant exemptions from independent review for projects to benefit the environment, fish or wildlife.

Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., a co-founder of the Congressional Corps Reform Caucus, said that and other reforms would enhance the Corps' credibility and public confidence. Demands by Blumenauer and other reform advocates delayed the bill for a year.

"Although the Corps of Engineers often takes the blame when Congress and other outside forces politicize the process, the WRDA bill (Water Resources Development Act) passed by Congress today is an improvement over previous proposals," he said Wednesday after the House's 412-8 vote.

The outside expert review requirement would not apply retroactively to the $148 million project to deepen the lower Columbia River shipping channel, Northwest corps officials and aides to Blumenauer said. Congress is expected to provide $2 million to $5 million for the project next year.

Likewise, they said the Corps' salmon mitigation program for the Columbia-Snake hydropower system - which is budgeted at $85 million this year -- would not be covered by the provision. The program is authorized under previous laws and undergoes scientific peer review through the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

The bill (H.R. 2557) would authorize hundreds of Army Corps of Engineers waterway, navigation, beach erosion and environmental restoration projects and studies costing a total of $4 billion over 10 years. The Bush administration opposes the bill because it would authorize new projects at a time when funding is already inadequate for ongoing and previously approved projects. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is not expected to produce its legislation until next year.

Blumenauer, a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, secured the largest new Northwest project authorization in the House bill -- a $5 million pilot program of ecosystem restoration and fish passage improvements on Oregon rivers. The Corps would first conduct a statewide feasibility study for such projects, with an emphasis on helping endangered, threatened and at-risk fish.

Responding to the administration's cost concerns, Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee Chairman John Duncan, R-Tenn., said the bill responds to national needs. "If we do not take action now to improve our ports and waterways, we could severely harm our economy as a result of congestion in our transportation systems," he said.

Among the measure's highlights are:

Blumenauer said the Corps must be modernized to ensure that civil works projects are economically and environmentally sound. He said findings of government and private studies show the Army Corps of Engineers' planning process is often biased in favor of large projects, lacks adequate environmental safeguards and has manipulated data to secure approval for major projects.

A provision authored by Blumenauer would provide the Corps with greater flexibility in its planning process to consider both the economic benefits of environmental restoration projects and the environmental benefits of economic restoration projects.

The Blumenauer provision also requires the Corps to calculate the residual flooding risks of projects, such as the impact downstream of a structural project like a levee. The intent is to encourage the Corps to do more non structural flood control projects, such as wetland restoration, whose benefits are harder to calculate.

"This WRDA bill is not perfect, but represents a small step forward," argued Blumenauer. "I'll continue to work for even more ambitious reforms as Congress moves forward with future WRDA bills."

Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., another committee member, said he gained language in the bill to continue allowing non-federal public entities to contribute funds to the Army Corps of Engineers to help expedite the processing of permits. This authority has been utilized in the Pacific Northwest by the ports of Seattle and Tacoma and the city of Seattle to help clear the large backlog of corps permits caused by the endangered species designation of chinook salmon and the bull trout.

Because of additional Corps staff hired with non-federal contributions, the permit backlog has been substantially reduced.

The program enables groups to "help speed the often tedious process of permit applications along and clear the way for new, innovative projects while still protecting the environment," Baird said.

by CBB Staff
House Bill Requires New Reviews for Large Corps Projects
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 26, 2003

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