WASHINGTON — Sen. David Vitter took aim at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday for repeated missed deadlines and inefficiencies, especially with regard to the oft-delayed “Morganza to the Gulf” levee project.
In leading up to the drafting of the new Water Resources Development Act, Vitter requested and presided over much of Thursday’s Oversight Hearing on Implementation of Corps of Engineers Water Resources Policies.
Vitter, of Louisiana, is the ranking Republican member on the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that called the hearing.
Vitter is planning to draft changes in the WRDA bill that he said would make the corps more efficient and jump-start projects in Louisiana. Vitter also said he is working with Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., on legislation to give state and local authorities more control of Corps projects, much like the Federal Highway Administration does with highway projects.
But Vitter zeroed in on the “Morganza to the Gulf” project, which has been 21 years in the making and was delayed again last year. The project’s costs have skyrocketed. The corps missed deadlines, the costs increased with time and then the authority to proceed was “de-authorized” because of the cost adjustments, Vitter said.
The project that was delayed again last year involves a series of levees, locks and other systems through Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes that should, when complete, protect about 200,000 people against storm surge, such as those caused by Hurricane Katrina.
“We have a history since 1992, and we still haven’t started construction,” Vitter said, arguing the need for more accountability.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the corps’ commanding general and chief of engineers, said the corps should finalize a report in “mid-summer” on how to proceed.
Bostick said “risk-based assessments” are ongoing and that the preliminary feedback” is pointing to the project costs being reduced to well below $10.6 billion.
Last month, a report estimated the project will cost $12.9 billion, a dramatic increase from the $887 million estimate when the project was authorized by Congress in 2007. Potential future sources of the local share of the cost could come from offshore oil revenues or even some of the projected fine money from the Deepwater Horizon oil leak.
“We need to be accountable, and we’ll strive to do that, especially in this case,” said Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works.
Vitter said no state is more dependent on the “good work” of the corps than Louisiana, and he praised the levee system improvements in the New Orleans area since Katrina. But he also criticized the corps for failing to proceed on congressionally authorized projects.
“The corps ignores mandates when it chooses to,” Vitter said, arguing that too often the corps operates with the “unspoken” guideline that the “safest levee is one that never gets built.”
Darcy said that the funding is often not provided, but Vitter countered that the overall pool of funding is there and that the corps is “picking and choosing” without regard to the law when the corps does not want to move forward on certain projects.
Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana, and Robert Turner, regional director of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority, also criticized the corps’ problematic bureaucracy.
“We’ve been studying that project (Morganza) for 21 years and have spent $72 million dollars without putting a shovel in the ground,” Graves testified.
Graves said the corps’ process is “backwards” and requires years to make any adjustments. The end result is the corps and the states move forward with less efficient versions of projects in order to get anything done, he said.
“It’s not how any other budget process in the federal government is done,” Graves said.
Graves, Turner and Vitter also urged the corps to stop using the so-called Modified Charleston Method, which went into place in 2011 in southern Louisiana for calculating wetlands mitigation.
The term “wetlands mitigation” is the federally required process through which developers, both public and private, wanting to build in wetlands must buy credits. The money is then used to create or restore wetlands in another area.
Critics of the MCM argue the new rules are stalling projects ranging from business developments in St. Tammany Parish to the Morganza to the Gulf project.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., argued that Congress has to act this month to avoid across-the-board, so-called “sequester” spending cuts going into effect March 1 that would cut 8.5 percent of the corps’ budget indiscriminately.
“It’s dangerous to everything it touches,” Boxer said.
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