… or so you can imagine Michelle Malkin reworking the old lawyer joke with glee this past weekend, when a reader alerted her to “A Barrier That Could Have Been” in the Sept. 9 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

In a nutshell, the newspaper reported that in 1977, wetlands preservation activists successfully sued under the National Environmental Policy Act to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from building a massive hurricane barrier meant to protect New Orleans. They proved to a U.S. District Court judge that the Corps had failed to do a thorough evaluation of the project’s possible environmental impacts. The St. Tammany Parish and local fishers had also opposed the project.

The LAT reporters wrote, “Now the question is: Could that barrier have protected New Orleans from the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina?”

That’s the wrong question.

“If we had built the barriers, New Orleans would not be flooded,” said Joseph Towers, the retired chief counsel for the Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans district.

Tower’s view is endorsed by a former key senator, along with academic experts, who say a hurricane barrier is the only way to control the powerful storm surges that enter Lake Pontchartrain and threaten the city. Other experts are less sure, saying the barrier would have been no match for Katrina …

The principal members of the environmental group, several of whom lived in the flooded areas of the city, could not be reached for comment.

And apparently no one else could be reached, either, judging by the near-absence of any “other experts” in the article to counterweight Towers’ allegations.

The question that Malkin — and much more damnably, the LAT — failed to ask is: What might the Corps have done next to advance the barrier, if it was certain the project was crucial to someday saving New Orleans?

The answer: A proper environmental impact study. D’oh!

But although the judge in the case specifically encouraged the Corps to simply do a better assessment, it dropped the project by the mid-1980s.

The “unreachable” activist group, Save Our Wetlands, is apparently getting online from somewhere — it’s posted a rebuttal to the LAT on its website. And the Center for Progressive Reform has posted a lengthy clarification of the project’s history and the court decision [PDF] dated the very same day the article ran. Just a few tiny excerpts (emphasis mine):

First, and most important, the litigation concerned only the adequacy of the environmental impact statement (EIS) that the Corps of Engineers had prepared to detail the environmental effects of the proposal and reasonable alternatives …

… The court was also impressed by the fact that the Corps of Engineers had not implemented a request by the chief of its own New Orleans engineering division to complete an adequate hydraulic design for the project before launching into a project that, in his words, might have “far-reaching and adverse consequences.”  Finally, the biological assessment in the EIS relied exclusively on telephone conversations with a single marine biologist.

The injunction would have been lifted had the Corps of Engineers simply updated the EIS with adequate hydrologic modeling, as requested by its own chief engineer, conducted a more thorough biological assessment, and considered a few reasonable alternatives.

The normally excellent standards of environmental reporting at the LAT took a serious holiday with this story. The point-counterpoint approach that environmentalists so despise when it comes to coverage of global warming — and with reason, since it usually gives marginal climate change naysayers equal time with folks in on the scientific consensus — would have illuminated the issues here.

Instead the paper tarred the wetlands activists and let the Corps off the hook.