NWF View: February/March 1999

It's time for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to redefine its mission from reworking nature to restoring it.

  • Mark Van Putten
  • Feb 01, 1999
For decades they´ve fought to conquer nature. Now it´s time for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers--the federal behemoth of public-works construction projects--to redefine its mission from reworking nature to restoring it.

Despite heartening signals at the top, the Corps is largely stuck in an era when there was no wetland that could not be drained, no river or harbor that could not be dredged and no flood that could not be controlled by more and higher levees, all at taxpayer expense.

Today, the Corps alters more environmentally sensitive landscapes and waters every year than does any other branch of the national government. Its annual budget now tops $4 billion, with $1.5 billion spent on nearly 500 new construction projects and $1.7 billion devoted to operating and maintaining the vast network of completed jobs. Waiting in the wings is a massive backlog of congressionally approved, but as yet unfunded, "civil works programs" that often reflect pork-barrel politics more than engineering genius.

Of course, many Corps flood control projects do protect lives and property, and much commerce depends on Corps´ maintained river channels and harbors.

But the Corps´ appetite for big new construction jobs has outgrown the nation´s need for them and failed to keep up with new knowledge about how natural systems function. Too many rivers are still being converted into muddy ditches. Too much of the floodplain is still being transformed into suburbs, which often continue to flood at huge taxpayer expense. In the Mississippi Delta, the $200-million-plus Big Sunflower River and Yazoo backwater pumps projects (see "Dubious Days in the Delta") are typical of too many Corps schemes: high-cost, low-benefit, environmentally destructive dead ends.

Fortunately, some of the most articulate voices for change come from the Corps itself. Two years ago, the chairman of the Corps´ Environmental Advisory Board argued emphatically for including environmental restoration in Corps projects.

Last year, the Corps´ leadership launched the ambitious Challenge 21 program, which emphasizes nonstructural solutions like voluntary property buyouts to reduce flood damage and restore streamside and wetland eco- systems. Congress, addicted to the concrete and dirt approach, gave Challenge 21 only tepid support.

In October, the Clinton administration unveiled a Corps-inspired 20-year plan to invest $8 billion in state and federal funds to restore much of the Everglades´ natural flow by removing levees and filling in drainage canals. While this plan still requires public scrutiny, the shift in attitude it represents for the Corps is both welcome and dramatic. It illustrates the good news about many environmental problems: Though we have done much harm, we now have the capacity to restore many natural systems and fix the damage we have done.

But two big hurdles remain. One is an entrenched Corps bureaucracy that views its mission as construction and is suspicious of the idea of environmental restoration. The other is Congress, which too often sees the Corps´ budget as little more than a federal jobs bill for contractors back home.

Do we really need to spend $4 billion on the Corps every year? Certainly, a larger share of its budget could be put to better use reclaiming natural systems. We can start by insisting that the Corps´ projects do no environmental harm. Beyond that, we must insist the Corps and Congress turn the rhetoric about environmental restoration into a reality.

Mark Van Putten
President & Chief Executive Officer
National Wildlife Federation 

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