In a post last week on the bureaucratic inflighting over Louisiana’s coastal restoration efforts, I took a “the system’s broken” point of view. Chris Macaluso, a spokesman for the state’s coastal restoration efforts, sent me an email that elaborates on some of the ways the system is broken.
The state government — which ought to have strong voice in how billions of dollars are spent to rebuild, well, a large area of the state — is effectively marginalized by the Corps of Engineers, which is jealously guarding its own turf and funding. In a nutshell: A federal task force in which the Corps plays a major role says a marsh-rebuilding project that diverts silt-laden water from the Mississippi into the wetlands must be shut down, because it’s piling up silt in a ship anchorage. That requires dredging, and there’s no money for dredging. So, no marsh rebuilding. Macaluso:
I assure you, there is no one more upset and disgusted with this decision to shut down this diversion than the state of Louisiana and we will do all we can to keep it from being closed. We feel there was no definitive evidence shown that this diversion was the cause of the situation. The Corps said repeatedly that the river is a dynamic system, which means the sediment could have come from any number of sources, especially considering the multiple flood events in the Mississippi River this year.
The state has offered $10.9 billion for dredging, but it also wants a scientific study to determine the source of the silting.
But to put things in perspective: The Corps has been building levees and dredging channels in the Louisiana marshes for 150 years, something that has greatly accelerated the erosion of those marshes. Now that those huge errors are being addressed — with state and federal money — the Corps wants the state to pony up the dredging money, a price tag that could run into the billions. Among the arguments: The Corps has no authority to dredge anchorages, only waterways. That leaves it up to local harbors. And so on down the bureaucratic rabbit hole.
Rebuilding Louisiana’s marshes is a difficult enough task on its own, one that will likely fail if it isn’t done right, and done fast. If the agencies involved — particularly the Corps — can’t exercise a little leadership and avoid this kind of endless, mind-numbing brinkmanship, it’s just not going to happen.
This is an ominous sign for another reason. If the signals are right, the Obama administration is likely to spend a lot of money on infrastructure as part of its economic stimulus package. The Corps of Engineers is one of the nation’s biggest infrastructure agencies, and it has repeatedly shown it doesn’t have its priorities straight.