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Losing Ground

Wetland’s demise ripples across nation

Louisiana may be key to corps’ future work

Gannett News Service

NEW ORLEANS — The Army Corps of Engineers tamed the mighty Mississippi River with 2,200 miles of levees and floodwalls but at the cost of almost 2,000 square miles of Louisiana’s productive and protective coastal wetlands.

Now the corps, along with the state of Louisiana and other federal agencies, is drafting a massive plan that could cost up to $14 billion and take decades to complete to stop the state’s continuing loss of marshes and swamps to the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s an interesting twist for an agency long criticized by environmentalists and its own inspector general for manipulating studies to justify massive navigation and flood control projects with dubious economic benefits and destructive ecological impacts.

Instead of levee building and river channeling, efforts like preserving Louisiana’s wetlands and restoring Florida’s Everglades, an $8 billion project the corps has under way, could make up a much larger part of the agency’s future work.

“There is only one area where there is not only growth potential but a crying need and I think efforts like this are certainly high on that list,” said Mark Davis, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.

The corps already has committed to working in environmentally sustainable ways, ensuring that the best science is applied to projects and integrating economics and ecology in developing projects, said Lt. Gen. Robert B. Flowers, chief of engineers for the corps. It also wants to have some projects independently reviewed, he said.

“For our program to remain a viable contributor to national welfare, we must remain sensitive to such factors and continue to reorient and refocus the program in light of them,” Flowers told Congress earlier this year.

But Congress is moving ahead with its own ideas to reform the corps.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed a $4 billion measure in July authorizing water projects that for the first time requires an independent panel to review the corps’ large or controversial projects to ensure that they’re economically beneficial and environmentally benign. Corps leaders could exempt a project from review if it’s noncontroversial or doesn’t hurt the environment, but other federal and state agencies could appeal that decision.

Other reforms in the measure call for more detailed plans for mitigating environmental damage from corps projects and an update of the principles and guidelines the corps uses when considering new projects.

Corps reforms were a sticking point last year in debate over the bill, leading to its demise. Despite the House committee’s approval, the Senate has shown no interest in tackling the bill this year.

The bill authorizes or modifies more than 160 flood control and navigation projects along with more than 80 projects for environmental and aquatic ecosystem restoration.

While acknowledging the move toward reform in the bill, environmental and taxpayer groups remain less than enthusiastic about some elements.

“While there’s still major work ahead, this (bill) sends the clear message that reform is an essential part of the corps’ future,” said David Conrad, a water resource specialist for the National Wildlife Federation, which is backing the coastal Louisiana restoration effort. “However the bill still includes many wasteful and environmentally destructive pork-barrel projects that should be stricken.”

Longstanding projects that prompt environmental criticism include:

— The $191 million Yazoo Backwater Pumps, an effort to increase floodwater drainage to about 200,000 acres of Mississippi Delta wetlands above Vicksburg, Miss., for agriculture.

— The $311 million deepening of the Delaware River shipping channel.

— The $108 million Oregon Inlet Jetties project on North Carolina’s Outer Banks to give commercial and private fishing boats better access to the Atlantic Ocean.

Corps officials point out that the agency doesn’t act in a vacuum.

“What we would tell you is that notwithstanding what some people say, we don’t necessarily make up our own work and then go fund our own work,” Fred Caver, deputy director of civil works for the Army Corps of Engineers. “What we do is a reflection of society’s values, priorities, wishes, needs and what have you.”

In the future, the corps probably will put value on developing more comprehensive, basin-wide solutions to water problems in collaboration with other federal agencies, state and local governments and maybe with the private sector, Caver said.

“We’ve also come to realize that we can’t develop, nor can anyone else for that matter, single purpose, geographically discreet solutions to water resource problems,” Caver said. “Anytime you solve a problem of a certain type, you probably induce different problems somewhere else.”

Davis, whose coalition has advocated coastal restoration for 15 years, said the Louisiana project to save the wetlands would be a laboratory for a new culture in the corps.

“I don’t think that the Corps of Engineers that comes out of this process will be the same one that went into it,” Davis said. “You can’t save this place without figuring out how to do flood control in a more integrated and sensitive way. You can’t save this place if you don’t learn how to coordinate restoration activity with wetland protection.”

Restoration meetings

The Army Corps of Engineers, Louisiana officials and other engineers and scientists will hold four public meetings around the coastal region in August to discuss comprehensive restoration plans for the state’s wetlands, their cost effectiveness and other factors:

— Aug. 4, Belle Chasse, 5:30 p.m., at the Belle Chasse Auditorium, 8398 Highway 23.

— Aug. 5, Larose, 5:30 p.m., at the Larose Civic Center, 307 East Fifth St.

— Aug. 6, Morgan City, 5:30 p.m., Morgan City Municipal Audito-rium, 728 Myrtle St.

— Aug. 7, Cameron, 5:30 p.m., Cameron Parish Police Jury Room, 100 Smith Circle.