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PO Box 1070, Frankfort, KY 40602  Phone 502.875.2428, Fax 502.875.2845

KRC Signs Joint Letter With 94 Other Organizations In Seeking Reforms In Federal Water Resources Development Act  Posted: December 12, 2012

November 29, 2012


The Honorable Barbara Boxer, Chair
Committee on Environment and Public Works
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

The Honorable James M. Inhofe, Ranking Member
Committee on Environment and Public Works
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

The Honorable Max Baucus, Subcommittee Chair
Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee
Committee on Environment and Public Works
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

The Honorable David Vitter, Subcommittee Ranking Member
Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee
Committee on Environment and Public Works
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

Re: Improve Corps of Engineers Civil Works Program in Next Water Resources Development Act to Protect the Public, Benefit the Environment and Enhance the Economy


Dear Senators:

On behalf of the 95 undersigned conservation, taxpayer and civic organizations and our millions of members and supporters across the country, we call on you to include the reforms outlined below in the next Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). These reforms are critical for ensuring that the Army Corps of Engineers better manages taxpayer dollars to improve the safety and economic well being of communities across the country and to improve the health of the nation’s rivers, coasts, and wetlands. All of our members are concerned with Corps civil works projects that are wasting taxpayer dollars while causing significant, and avoidable, harm to the nation’s waters and the environment.

While we appreciate the work that has gone into developing the recently-released WRDA discussion draft, we believe that much more must be done to ensure that federal water projects are both economically and environmentally sound. We also believe that Congress should not automatically authorize projects that have been approved by the Chief of Engineers, as provided in the discussion draft. Congress should carefully review all projects based on their merits, and should establish and ensure implementation of a modernized planning process for the Corps that includes the reforms we recommend below.

Fundamental changes to the Corps’ planning process are needed to address the water resources challenges facing the nation. Many of our nation’s aquatic ecosystems are in decline, and the increasingly severe weather and rising sea levels resulting from climate change – problems dramatically highlighted by the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy – are a wakeup call that we cannot continue with business as usual. Meaningfully addressing these challenges in the face of substantial Federal deficits will require changes to the current planning process to ensure that taxpayer dollars are only spent on environmentally sound, sustainable, and cost effective solutions to the nation’s many water resources challenges.

While reforms enacted in WRDA 2007 have produced some improvements in the Corps’ civil works program, and the discussion draft includes some valuable reforms, one only needs to look at the Great Missouri River Flood of 2011 to see that additional reforms are needed. Instead of responding to that devastating flood by modifying the Missouri River navigation and flood damage reduction systems to improve public safety, the economy, and environment, the Corps is, for the most part, rebuilding the exact same system. The Corps is spending exceedingly scarce tax dollars on rebuilding an extensive navigation channel in the Missouri River that is barely used and fails to provide any benefits to the nation and on rebuilding levees that together have destroyed many thousands of acres of wetlands, cut the River off from its natural floodplain, and increased flood risks for communities. The Corps should be modernizing management of the Missouri River instead of rebuilding antiquated and destructive infrastructure that will continue to put the public at risk.

The reforms outlined below would lead to better-planned projects, improvements to existing projects, and avoidance of many adverse impacts while promoting modern, environmentally and fiscally sound solutions to the nation’s many pressing water resources challenges. We urge you to include these reforms in the next WRDA that moves through the Committee and to exert your leadership to ensure that these policy reforms are enacted into law.

CLOSE LOOPHOLES IN WRDA 2007 REFORMS. Congress enacted fundamental reforms in WRDA 2007 to produce more effective, less destructive, and less costly federal water projects. Unfortunately, ambiguities in these reforms are allowing the Corps to evade their clear meaning and intent.

• Congress should ensure compliance with the WRDA 2007 national water policy by requiring the use of nonstructural and restoration measures where they can provide an appropriate level of protection and benefits. WRDA 2007 requires that projects “protect the environment” by “protecting and restoring the functions of natural systems and mitigating any unavoidable damage to natural systems” and by “seeking to avoid the unwise use of floodplains.” Despite these mandates, the Corps continues to promote environmentally destructive and costly structural projects that are increasing vulnerabilities and future costs, where often less costly and environmentally protective nonstructural and restoration solutions are available.

• Congress should ensure compliance with the WRDA 2007 mitigation provision by requiring adoption of mitigation measures recommended pursuant to the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act. WRDA 2007 establishes important requirements to ensure effective mitigation for fish and wildlife losses caused by Corps projects. Despite these mandates, the Corps continues to adopt inadequate and ineffective mitigation plans that will not work, in part because they continue to ignore expert recommendations made by federal and state fish and wildlife agencies.

• Congress should ensure compliance with the WRDA 2007 independent review provision by ensuring active and meaningful public participation, an appropriate scope of review, and clear timelines for the preparation and release of independent reviews to Congress and the public. WRDA 2007 establishes important standards to ensure transparency, accountability, and public involvement in the independent review of Corps studies. Despite these mandates, the Corps continues to withhold critical review information, impose inappropriate limits on the scope of review, and exclude the public from the process.

MODERNIZE OPERATION OF EXISTING PROJECTS. The Corps continues to operate major federal projects under decades-old operating plans that harm the environment, increase flood risks, aggravate contentious water quantity conflicts, and fail to address current needs. The agency also continues to spend significant amounts of federal tax dollars operating and maintaining navigation systems that are rarely used and no longer serve the national interest.

• Congress should require the Corps to evaluate and update operations plans and water control manuals for large-scale Corps projects at least every 10 years and implement needed operational changes. Many major Corps projects are being operated under decades-old operating plans that do not account for current conditions or science, put communities at risk, and cause unnecessary harm to the environment. Regular reoperation would ensure that modern science, management approaches, and needs guide the operation of Corps projects.

• Congress should establish a meaningful non-Federal cost share for Inland Waterways operations and maintenance. Operations and maintenance activities for all segments of the inland waterways system are currently funded 100% by federal taxpayers, not waterway users, even for segments that see little use or serve only parochial interests. These now represent the majority of the cost of this system, percentage-wise the highest US transportation subsidy. Creating a meaningful non-Federal cost share for waterways operations and maintenance would ensure that scarce tax dollars are spent on navigation systems that provide real value to the nation. Meaningful non-Federal cost share is a vital step in prioritizing national needs over inefficient and environmentally destructive efforts to maintain waterways that are rarely used.

IMPROVE FLOOD DAMAGE REDUCTION MEASURES TO KEEP COMMUNITIES SAFE. The Corps continues to promote large scale structural measures to address local flooding problems even when they increase flooding downstream, induce development in high risk areas, and cause significant environmental harm. Nonstructural and restoration measures can be used to provide communities with reliable and cost effective protection from floods while also improving the environment.

• Congress should modernize emergency flood recovery efforts by allowing the use of P.L. 84-99 funds for levee setbacks, and nonstructural and restoration measures. P.L. 84-99 requires the Corps to fund 80% to 100% of the cost of restoring a publicly-owned flood project damaged by a flood to pre-disaster conditions (33 U.S.C. 701n). These large, guaranteed federal subsidies cause many communities to allow dangerous uses of floodplain areas and have led to the repeated rebuilding of many levees at significant cost to the public. Removing the existing restriction against the use of P.L. 84-99 funds for nonstructural measures (unless specifically requested to do so by the local sponsor) and requiring careful consideration of more sustainable, less damaging alternatives before rebuilding would increase community safety, save taxpayer dollars, and improve the environment.

• Congress should create economic incentives for low impact flood damage reduction projects and should establish a programmatic authority for smaller scale flood damage reduction projects that utilize such approaches. Communities continue to request large scale structural projects to address local flooding problems even though such projects increase flooding downstream, induce development in high risk areas, and cause significant environmental harm. Creating an incentive for utilizing nonstructural and restoration solutions would increase community safety while improving the environment.

PRIORITIZE PROJECTS TO MAXIMIZE LIMITED CORPS FUNDING. The Corps is responsible for an ever growing backlog of increasingly costly, and often environmentally destructive, projects with no system to objectively prioritize those projects that will best serve the nation, including through maximizing protection of our nation’s waters. Increasingly scarce tax dollars should be directed only to projects that are environmentally and economically sound and that comply with modern project criteria.

• Congress and the Administration should establish a project prioritization system focused on addressing national needs. Too often Corps projects provide few, if any, national benefits and damage natural resources that provide important benefits to the nation. Such projects divert scarce tax dollars away from projects that would advance national economic development and the nation’s ability to protect citizens and property from natural disasters. Creating a transparent, consistent and verifiable merit-based system that prioritizes projects based on their national benefits and environmental impacts is necessary to maximize the effectiveness of federal investments.

• Congress should create a more robust system of project deauthorization to reduce the current backlog estimated at more than $70 billion of authorized but uncompleted projects. Taxpayer dollars should not be spent on decades old projects that fail to address current needs, fail to address national priorities, and ignore modern science. At current funding levels, it would take more than 35 years to clear this existing backlog. Creating an effective and transparent system to fundamentally reexamine the need and approach of outdated or questionable projects will ensure that scarce tax dollars will only be spent on scientifically sound projects that serve the nation’s current needs.

The undersigned organizations urge you to include these provisions in the next WRDA that moves through the Committee, and look forward to working with you to ensure that these reforms are enacted into law.

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