Wednesday, April 23, 2014

How the US Army Corps of Engineers manifests Congressional incompetence and the irresponsibility of American voters… by gimleteye

After all the attention directed to the incompetence of the US Army Corps of Engineers (cf. Michael Grunwald, Washington Post, 2005), it is remarkable that Congress has failed to reform the Corps. Consider just one case: Florida's dying Everglades.

The Corps is the principal federal partner in Everglades restoration, conceived as the most ambitious and expensive environmental project ever undertaken. The Everglades' life as a restoration project began in 2000, authorized and approved by the federal government and state of Florida as a $6.8 billion bargain resolving nearly two decades of litigation at the time. Fifteen years later, and environmentalists are wondering whether the whole mess shouldn't just be scrapped.

The problem is both bigger and smaller than the adage, "The Everglades is a test. If we pass, we may get to keep the planet." The devil is in the details, and in the case of a massive restoration project it is important to pay attention to the agencies managing the details.

The federal partner is the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps is not just the principal partner. Its role in management, planning and construction of projects makes the agency the key driver despite the fact that only the state, through its South Florida Water Management District, has taxing authority specific to Everglades restoration.

Unsurprisingly, the state partner is also the easiest for campaign contributors who control the state legislature to manipulate (those would be, Big Sugar billionaires). At every legislative session, insiders and lobbyists excel in ensuring that nothing is given to the Everglades without taking at least an equal part away, if not in Everglades protections then in state regulations like those protecting against rampant growth or upstream water quality or farm practices that indirectly impact the Everglades.

It is hard to imagine that insiders could top this dismal formula, but they have. Three years ago, Florida governor, Rick Scott -- in one of his first acts as newly elected chief executive -- axed the science budget of the District, thereby eliminating the capacity of the state to measure and monitor the results of Everglades restoration.

So who are Florida's Everglades activists to turn to, with state government proving obdurate at every point unless first blessed by Big Sugar?

Then there is Big Sugar, its marketing budgets, tons of PR merchandising and hundred of tons of influence with legislative processes and opportunities to put the fixes in, whenever and wherever they want. The sugar spin machine would have you believe their motives are pure and white as driven snow -- they "welcome" collaborations with the environmentalists went one recent initiative -- , and even if they would have taxpayers believe their actions can't be cast in a moral light -- because they are corporations and corporations are people -- , that they conform with the letter of the law. Big Sugar spends tens of millions of dollars a year, along these lines of persuasion.

The partner that ought to be more balanced by virtue of distance from local and state influence peddling  is the federal one. But there is no federal agency more hobbled by political meddling than the US Army Corps of Engineers.  The Corps is bogged down in the Everglades by rules and regulations superimposed as its own form of adapting to Congressional pressures.

Every major Corps project has to be authorized by Congress. Obtaining Congressional authorization is subject to all the whims of politics. And then there is the appropriations process, another chance for Big Sugar to put its imprimatur on the sausage that emerges at the tail pipe of federal legislation.

Environmentalists in Florida are caught between this rock and this hard place on so many levels. Just follow the money. Nothing is easy when it comes to getting money for the Everglades. Because funding is threatened each and every year -- whether by competing interests, competing damaged ecosystems, whether by ideologues or by special interests like Big Sugar whose fingers are relentlessly on the scale of justice -- environmentalists are timid.

They are further intimidated by worry that voters aren't paying attention, and because voters aren't paying attention that any negative news could drive both legislative support and their own contributors away.

The hardest place for the public interest may be the Corps of Engineers, an agency whose supervision of Everglades restoration is turning into the mess predicted by some environmentalists nearly fifteen years ago with the first Congressional authorization of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. At the time and with the 2000 federal Everglades plan, the White House could have put the US Department of Interior in place to be a third co-equal partner. That might have provided the single federal agency with a clear mandate to protect its national parks in a defining role. But the Clinton Administration and Senator Bob Graham caved to pressure from Big Sugar, that profits most when government programs to protect the environment are designed with built-in failure mechanisms. With Everglades "restoration". Big Sugar always exceeds its expectations along this line, notwithstanding an occasional set back in federal court.

Last week, the Corps could not support a plan to authorize a new piece of the Everglades puzzle because it did not meet Corps standards for quality. That piece of the puzzle is called the Central Everglades Planning Project. Although it would also take many years to complete, involving the creation of alternative engineered water flow pathways, CEPP at least gave some hope to angry, frustrated residents on both Florida coasts who have seen toxic algae blooms become so prolific that property values -- not to mention quality of life -- are being seriously impacted. A further irony is that affected homeowners are mostly Republicans, proving the fine example of voters voting against their own interests, time and again, by electing officials who do the bidding of polluters.

But these are distractions to the main folly. The US Army Corps may in fact be right to want to "go slow" on CEPP because of serious water quality issues. In other words, they may be able to engineer moving the dirty water south to the Everglades before they know if they can clean it up. The Corps' apparent concern is happening at the same time as its own inadequate contract supervision of important EXISTING Everglades restoration projects has unfolded in plain daylight.

Far out of the media spotlight in West Palm Beach, the District and the Corps have been battling over the result of the Corps' shoddy supervision of its subcontractors at one of the most critical Everglades restoration projects already authorized and funded by Congress: a water storage treatment area that is supposed to help water cleansed by man-made marshes flow into Loxahatchee national wildlife refuge. The refuge has been devastated by phosphorous laden water pouring off sugar fields for many years. As such, it is a bellwether for the remaining Everglades south and west.

The Corps' failure to adequately supervise a project that itself took many years to design and implement will cost lengthy delays and additional tens of millions in taxpayer contribution to its own ineptitude (I could but won't get into the Mod Waters project in west Miami-Dade county.)

I visited this water storage fiasco one clear Saturday in March. The lassitude of a failed project was visible -- hundreds of acres of scarified land served by faulty culverts was etched on a landscape that ought to have been humming with energy. Harmless foam barriers meant-to-do-what lazily floated by wading birds hunting for any piece of habitat suitable for feeding.

Meanwhile upstream from this man made cluster-of-mistakes, US Sugar just announced another bumper crop. The profits from sucrose just keep pumping along; from the veins of US voters straight to the healthy heart of Big Sugar. US Sugar is one of the two largest producers -- the other being the Fanjul billionaires -- expressed through Florida Crystals and various entities you can even find at Whole Foods -- and some 5.5 million tons of sugar grown in less than 200 days that poison democracy, poison the Everglades, and poison public health was extracted by US Sugar from the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee.

The purpose of the treatment marshes -- STA's as they are innocuously called -- is a work around of requiring Big Sugar to clean up its own pollution on its own land.

Our elected representatives have the power to fix these deep, enduring problems. Instead, the airwaves are filled with talking points, bloaviating by the right-wing spin machine, and the frittering of national capital. They are key players in the accepted game of socializing costs and privatizing profits.

Public opinion poll after public opinion poll show how little regard voters have for Congress. Yet voters are ultimately responsible for the morass. The US Army Corps remains the manifestation of a bitterly divided Congress, voter apathy, and misdirection by wealthy special interests. For decades it has been clear: there has to be a better way to serve the American public's need for infrastructure protecting the economy and the environment than the US Army Corps of Engineers. But where to turn?

While do-it-yourself video editors overlay their personalized versions of dancing to Pharrell Williams hit song "Happy", Big Sugar, corporate interests and other wealthy campaign financiers freed to unlimited contributions by the Bush Supreme Court are prancing in real world, grown-up VIP rooms, thrilled how dysfunction accrues to their net worth.


Anonymous said...

Not that anyone cares, but CEPP is pitting the Everglades and northern estuaries against Biscayne Bay. CEPP modeling demonstrated impacts to Biscayne Bay, Manatee Bay, Barnes Sound and Card Sound by failing to maintain critical water deliveries to these water bodies, which already are deprived of the correct amount, timing and quality of water they need to thrive. In the absence of defined reservations of water to maintain and restore the Bay, these southern ecosystems are going to be sacrificed in CEPP and then we are going to have to find the will and money to fix them too. Not to mention the potential CEPP impacts to urban water supply and flood control - those pesky savings clause issues.

It is tragic that DOI was not the primary federal sponsor, although I am not sure that would have been better. Biscayne National Park is always marginalized when pitted against Everglades National Park, and that is a false dichotomy - the enviros should be demanding both are restored. The real irony is that there is enough water for all the estuaries, both National Parks, Loxahatchee, the WCAs and all the ecosystems - evidenced by the amount of water that is flushed to tide every year. What's missing is money to ensure we have the land and systems needed to capture, treat and distribute that water.

Doesn't matter - global warming is probably going to make this a moot point anyway...

Gimleteye said...

Good points.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, sea level rise will make all the efforts to "restore" the Everglades a lost cause. I'm as anti USCOE as they come,but I think the failure to act on the restoration plan indicates to me the Corps knows in 20 years the glades will become a marine system. Perhaps it's time to consider using the billions on the "rest" of Florida, e.g., spring restoration/protection. Keep up the good work, gimlet eye.