John Paul Woodley, the former assistant secretary of the Army, once said there were three things the Army Corps of Engineers can’t do.
The first is make it rain. The second is stop the rain. And the third?
“The third thing the Corps of Engineers cannot do is make everybody happy, and I’m beginning to think we can’t make anybody happy,” Mr. Woodley told Post-Dispatch reporter Bill Lambrecht for his 2005 book “Big Muddy Blues.”
Last Sunday, Mr. Lambrecht’s reporting added perhaps a fourth thing the Corps of Engineers can’t do: finish the overpriced, mismanaged lock-and-dam project on the Ohio River near Olmsted, Ill.
In 1988, Congress first authorized spending $775 million on the project, at the busiest inland shipping hub in America, 17 miles from the Mississippi River.
Because of bad construction management decisions by the corps, including depending on a risky building technique, inconsistent funding decisions made by Congress and an open-ended agreement with the contractor, the costs of the lock-and-dam project have ballooned to more than $3.1 billion, with no realistic end in sight.
How does this happen?
The answers are as easy as they are numerous: Corps mismanagement. Lack of congressional oversight. Greedy contractors. Lawmakers more interested in local projects than efficient spending.
But the overriding cause of this boondoggle, one that has existed as long as the Mississippi has been flooding, is the fundamental absence of water management policy in a country utterly dependent on its rivers.
Travel down the Ohio from Olmsted to its confluence with the Mississippi and you come to Cairo, Ill., the once-thriving river town that exists today only because during the 2011 floods of the Missouri, Ohio and Mississippi rivers, corps officials blew up the Birds Point Levee to release a wall of water into the New Madrid Floodway.
It was a wise decision, but that didn’t stop southeast Missouri farmers, and Missouri politicians, from criticizing the corps’ decision.
One of those politicians, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is now pushing the corps to construct the ultimate in boondoggles, a new levee that would completely block off the New Madrid Floodway. That would mean an even bigger disaster the next time a big flood comes.
It’s madness, of course, but so is everything about the nation’s river and management policy.
Take a look at the great American Bottom, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi just across from St. Louis. There a series of levees — some managed locally, some by the corps — protect about 156,000 residents of the Metro East from floods. Taxpayers in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties raised about $175 million in sales taxes to bring levees up to standards demanded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But the corps says it doesn’t have the money to do the repairs necessary on the 8,000-foot segment under its control. When you’re spending $3 billion on a dam project that is 20 years behind schedule, it’s easy to see why.
When it comes to river management, the only thing that is working is the blame game.
Farmers blame environmentalists, who blame barge operators, who blame the corps, who blame members of Congress, who then point the finger at each other.
If we’re really going to find a culprit for our nation’s river mess, let’s go all the way back to 1944 and blame Col. Lewis Pick and Glenn Sloan.
Mr. Pick was head of the corps at that time while Mr. Sloan headed the Bureau of Reclamation. They are responsible for the Pick-Sloan plan, which became the Flood Control Act of 1944. That act built a series of dams and levees along the Missouri River and created a navigation channel that has rarely been used to this day. The Pick-Sloan plan directly contributed to some of the flooding problems along both the Missouri and the Mississippi in the several decades since 1944.
More important, however, is what Pick-Sloan prevented. The alternative plan, put forward by this editorial page, was creating an independent federal agency to manage the entire Missouri River basin. Our predecessors’ very good idea was stopped by bureaucrats and politicians who went on a spending spree.
The reality today is that the Missouri, the Mississippi, the Ohio and the Illinois rivers still lack a single, strong entity to make sure that boondoggles like the Olmsted dam project don’t happen.
The corps fights for money to build things. Compliant congressmen say yes so they can brag about projects in their districts. Various other federal agencies, Fish and Wildlife and FEMA, fight to protect their concerns, but in the end, nobody is in charge.
This is why the call by America’s WETLAND Foundation for a 25-state Mississippi River compact is so incredibly important. Over the last two years the foundation has held meetings up and down the Mississippi River, including in St. Louis, urging states to take the river’s future into their hands by creating a political force strong enough to protect the river’s health, ease flooding concerns and maintain the river’s flow of economic opportunity.
This was the promise of the 1944 call for Missouri River basin states to put aside their differences and find common ground. It’s the call we made again on this page after the epic 2011 floods along the Missouri River. It’s the same call being made now, on an expanded basis, by environmentalists, states, mayors, farmers and barge operators after several more decades of failure.
The Olmsted dam debacle, the problems with the levees at the American Bottom, the lack of access to the river in great cities, the failure to recognize the long-term damage to the health of our rivers, these are all branches of the same river story.
Leaving America’s great rivers in the hands of the corps and Congress has failed.
It’s time to try something else.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.