Michael Grunwald, senior correspondent for

Time Magazine and noted critic of the Army Corps of Engineers, says yesterday’s historic override of President Bush’s water-bill veto isn’t worth celebrating — despite what many environmental activists think.

George Bush
He was the toast of Congress earlier this year, but yesterday Bush was less popular.
Photo: whitehouse.gov

Hooray! The Everglades and coastal Louisana have been rescued! Activists and politicians alike are giddy over the news that Congress overwhelmingly overrode President Bush’s veto of the Water Resources Development Act yesterday. The override authorizes $5 billion worth of new Army Corps of Engineers projects for the dying Everglades and the devastated Louisiana coast, plus another $18 billion worth of new projects for the rest of the country. It was the first veto override of the Bush era, an unprecedented bipartisan rebuke to an anti-environmental White House. The Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, and the National Parks Conservation Association are celebrating. So are the elected officials of Florida and Louisiana, even Bush-friendly Republicans like Senators Mel Martinez and David Vitter.

You’d think I’d be fired up, too. I wrote a book about the plight of the Everglades. I wrote an angry Time Magazine cover story about the plight of coastal Louisiana. I hold no brief for the global warming denier in the White House.

But this time, Bush was right.

This bloated bill will be terrible for the environment — and it won’t save the Everglades or coastal Louisiana. It will preserve America’s dysfunctional approach to water resources, the same approach that endangered the Everglades and coastal Louisiana in the first place.

The enviros who bashed Bush for blocking it will now return to their usual bashing of the Army Corps, but they just blew their best chance to reform this destructive and counterproductive agency — which just happens to oversee the restoration of the Everglades and the protection of coastal Louisiana.

To understand why this bill is so disastrous, it helps to recall the Army Corps scandals of 2000, when a slew of independent investigations — by the Pentagon inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, the National Academies of Sciences, and me — exposed how the agency was skewing its economic and environmental analyses to justify wetlands-killing boondoggles that kept its employees busy and its congressional patrons happy.

Corps leaders had launched a secret “Program Growth Initative” designed to boost their budget, ordering underlings to “get creative” with studies in order to greenlight projects. The most notorious was a $1 billion lock project on the Mississippi River; the Corps brass reassigned an honest economist who had concluded it made no sense, and sent a blizzard of emails ordering his replacements to concoct a rationale for it.

Traditionally, Congress has passed a WRDA bill every two years, larded with “earmarks” for Corps flood-control and navigation and beach-replenishment projects. These waterworks are a form of political swag on Capitol Hill; lawmakers use them to steer jobs and cash to their constituents and contributors, and to demonstrate their clout. But after the last WRDA bill passed in 2000, a small group of fiscal conservatives and liberal environmentalists led by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) came up with a new strategy for fixing the Corps: No more pork without reform. President Reagan used the same reform strategy in the 1980s, blocking WRDA for six years until pork-starved legislators reluctantly agreed to increase the local cost-share for Corps projects. The hope was that communities would lose their enthusiasm for boondoggles if they had to foot more of the bill.

After 2000, the tiny “Corps Reform Caucus” demanded two modest but significant fixes before any new WRDA bill could pass. The first would require independent technical reviews of all major projects, to prevent the Corps from cooking its books. The second would require the “prioritization” of Corps projects, so that America’s water resources could be developed or preserved according to a comprehensive national strategy instead of an annual scramble for appropriations. The desperate need for prioritization became especially clear after Hurricane Katrina; as I’ve written in Grist, the Corps had spent more money in Louisiana than any other state, but had wasted most of it on white-elephant navigation projects requested by the state’s congressional delegation instead of shoring up the flimsy floodwalls and vanishing wetlands that were supposed to protect New Orleans.

The reformers held tough for seven years, as pent-up demand for Corps earmarks grew. But this year the dam burst. The House passed a $14 billion bill with minimal reform; the Senate passed a $15 billion bill with minimal reform; Congress somehow compromised on a $23 billion bill with virtually no reform. When Bush objected to the price tag, right-wing Republicans like Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) joined forces with left-wing Democrats like Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to denounce him.

Everglades
Will the Everglades get help, or continue to languish?
Photo: fl.water.usgs.gov

And green groups eager to authorize restoration work on the Everglades and Louisiana’s coastal wetlands echoed the opposition of dredging contractors, shipping interests, beachfront developers, and farm groups eager for more traditional Corps projects. They helped provide the political cover for the overwhelming override of Bush’s veto. “If there is a cause that merits a historic vote such as this, it’s fitting that the cause be to restore some of our most special places before they are lost forever,” crowed April Gromnicki, Audubon’s director of ecosystem restoration.

It’s hard to see how this vote helps that cause, even if it gives Audubon something to brag about to clueless donors. The Corps already has a $58 billion backlog of unfinished projects. It needs 900 additional projects like Dom DeLuise needs a butt enhancement.

And the greens are deluded if they think their restoration projects will take precedence over the usual dredge-and-drain work favored by Congress and the Corps. There are already billions of dollars worth of authorized restoration projects for the Everglades and coastal Louisiana; Congress just hasn’t been funding them. Why should these be any different? Congress is much more likely to fund the new bill’s $900 million levee project for Louisiana, which would destroy thousands of additional acres of marshes and cypress swamps that might otherwise help deflect and deflate the next Gulf hurricane. The bill even authorizes the billion-dollar Mississippi River lock boondoggle that embarrassed the Corps in 2000 — except that the price tag has now skyrocketed to $2.3 billion.

Enviros have been justifiably outraged by Corps mismanagement of both the Everglades and coastal Louisiana restoration projects; neither has produced any significant ecological results. It certainly would be nice to have a greener agency in charge of reversing damage that was largely inflicted by the Corps in the first place. But that’s not going to happen as long as members of Congress see the Corps as their personal plaything. The best hope for America’s degraded ecosystems is a better Corps. Until then, you’ll keep seeing ludicrous stories like this. And this. And this.

But it’s hard to imagine when there’s going to be a better opportunity to improve the Corps than the one the environmental movement just missed. There’s an eco-friendly Democratic Congress and a Corps-unfriendly Republican president. There’s been a national backlash against earmarks, when the Corps is almost entirely funded by earmarks. The Corps and its congressional enablers recently drowned a city through bungled engineering, environmental ignorance, and misplaced priorities. And after enduring seven years without ribbon-cuttings, salivating lawmakers would have been willing to swallow almost anything that came attached to a new platter of pork.

Now that Congress has its pork, it’s got no incentive to reform the butcher. It’s sad that enviros helped make that happen, just because some of the bacon bits were for them.