To the disappointment of national and local conservation and watchdog groups, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) last night announced a Mississippi River management plan that is once again based on unsupported economic and river traffic data. In an interview with the press, the Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, described a plan to proceed with a $2.3 billion expansion of locks on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers. The Corps is also expected to brief other government officials today. A draft plan will be released to the public in early May.
The groups said the Corps has not shown that the budget busting lock expansion project is needed. The groups instead urged Congress to address congestion at river locks through management measures, like river traffic scheduling. In December 2003, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that it was "not possible" to evaluate the benefits of lock expansion until an efficient system for managing waterway traffic was implemented.
The Corps continues to use faulty economic tools to attempt to justify construction of longer locks even though river traffic has not increased in more than 20 years, and has actually declined in recent years. The groups called on the Corps to develop credible economic tools to determine whether the project is needed before asking Congress to spend as much as $2.3 billion on longer locks.
"Two panels from the National Academy of Sciences have concluded that the Corps is using economic tools like unrealistic traffic forecasts that produce the wrong results." said Scott Faber, Environmental Defense Water Resources Specialist. "We should not use bad math to decide the future of a river as important to the nation as the Mississippi."
"We recognize that Mississippi River navigation plays an important role in the Midwest agricultural economy and adequately funding needs to be provided for its continued operation and maintenance," said Mark Muller with Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "But spending billions of dollars on lock extensions - particularly at a time when agricultural exports have been in decline and any new exports will likely emanate from the West Coast and not the Gulf - is absolutely foolish."
In an apparent effort to avoid such criticism, the Corps' Chief of Engineers told at least one reporter that immediate construction of seven new locks and the extension of five existing locks, was necessary because of the potential for a catastrophic breakdown in the navigation system. This rationale has never been expressed before, let alone predicted or evaluated in any Corps study.
The locks and dams are also subject to regular maintenance, with $140 million spent annually. In addition, according to the Corps, the agency has already spent $400 million since 1975 rehabilitating the system.
"This is a case of twice-cooked pork," said Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility "But rather than cooking the books, the Corps has thrown out economic textbooks and is now writing fiction." PEER represents the economist who disclosed in 2000 that senior Corps officials ordered him to exaggerate the benefits of the lock expansion project. The Army Inspector General confirmed the disclosure, concluding that the Corps deceptively and intentionally manipulated data in an attempt to justify the lock expansion.
"The Corps' blatant abandonment of basic benefit cost analysis to suit its construction agenda on the Mississippi is the smoking gun of how the agency has been conducting business across the country," said David Conrad, Senior Water Resources Policy Specialist at the National Wildlife Federation. "The Corps simply cannot be trusted to be objective about its work and it's up to Congress to set the agency straight."
The Corps also today proposed to immediately deploy helper boats at some locks to help reduce a 90-minute lockage by 20 minutes or more while the locks are constructed.
"The Corps' proposal acknowledges what we have been saying for years. Small-scale measures can bring immediate relief to river users facing delays at a fraction of the cost of longer locks. By contrast, longer locks would take more than a decade to build," said Mark Beorkrem, Executive Director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance. "We should reduce delays now by immediately implementing small-scale measures and should take the time that's needed to fairly evaluate whether we need to spend $2.3 billion on longer locks."
The groups called the Corps' proposal to link restoration efforts on the river to the $2.3 billion lock plan a recipe for restoration failure. "The Corps' proposal would hold restoration hostage to a $2.3 billion boondoggle," said Melissa Samet, Senior Director of Water Resources at American Rivers. "Its bad for the river and bad for the taxpayers. The health of the Mississippi is in dire straits and full scale restoration should begin as soon as possible," said Samet.
"We should be restoring, not destroying, this great natural treasure," said Angela Anderson, Upper Basin Program Director for the Mississippi River Basin Alliance. "A healthy river supports more than 300,000 jobs in riverside communities – more jobs than are produced by the navigation industry and farming combined. The Corps should recognize that the needs of the living river are as important as the needs of the working river."
Additional Background: The Mississippi River was listed as one of America's "Most Endangered Rivers" last week by American Rivers and numerous partner groups, and the navigation expansion project was ranked among the most threatening and wasteful Corps project in the nation in "Crossroads: Congress, the Corps of Engineers and the Future of America's Water Resources," a March 2004 report by the National Wildlife Federation and Taxpayers for Common Sense.
For years the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) has been studying the economic justification for expanding locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers to accommodate more barge traffic and the environmental impacts of such expansion. In January the Corps announced their preliminary draft plan for navigation improvements and environmental restoration on these two rivers. Despite significant controversy surrounding the adequacy of the Corps' plan, the Corps is moving forward on a tight, politically motivated timeline to complete the study by November in an attempt to obtain Congressional authorization for lock expansion in the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2004.
Although the draft plan is not expected to be made public until May, the Corps indicated to the media on April 19th that it will recommend Congress authorize 5 new and 5 extended locks on the Mississippi River and 2 new locks on the Illinois River along with some smaller scale elements. If the Corps gets everything it asks for, the project will cost some $2.3 billion dollars. The Corps has also proposed linking efforts to restore portions of the river to the lock construction proposal. Though no specific restoration plan has been proposed, efforts would include changing how the Corps manages water levels; restoring backwaters, side channels and islands; and building fish passages at selected locks in an attempt to restore portions of the river ecosystem that have been lost in large as a result of the navigation system on the River. The Corps is proposing a restoration framework estimated at about $5.3 billion.