Even as President Biden’s signature climate change bill languishes in the Senate, Congress is poised to spend billions of dollars on ambitious new projects that would help the U.S. adapt to climate change. A bill that would authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to build infrastructure to protect against climate impacts is quietly sailing through Congress, demonstrating bipartisan support for measures to protect against flooding and sea-level rise. Lawmakers may not be willing to pass laws that will dramatically cut carbon emissions, but they appear eager to fund projects that will mitigate the harms those emissions cause.
Established in the nineteenth century, the Corps is a public-works authority charged with protecting the nation’s rivers and beaches from flooding and erosion. It has a mixed record on both fronts: Its levees have sometimes failed disastrously during storms like Hurricane Katrina, and its erosion control projects have often failed to slow down beach disappearance. To set the agency’s agenda, Congress reauthorizes a law called the Water Resources Development Act in every legislative session. Usually that just involves giving it money for various river control projects and authorizing it to conduct studies on the viability of future projects.
This year’s bill, however, seeks to give the Army Corps of Engineers a heftier role in responding to the effects of climate change, even though it doesn’t name them as such. The legislation will authorize funding for several massive projects in parts of the country hardest hit by climate change, and it also expands the range of issues the agency can tackle to include shoreline resilience and drought. The bill cleared a Senate committee last week on a unanimous vote, and the House of Representatives will soon mark up its own version.
The marquee projects in the new bill seek to protect communities along the Gulf of Mexico from storm surge and flooding. Hurricanes and tropical cyclones have become stronger and more destructive as the oceans have warmed, and rapid sea level rise has made flooding more common all along the coast. Congress’s decision to address these threats amounts to a tacit admission that climate change has ratcheted up the danger.
The centerpiece of the bill is a $19 billion allocation for the “Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration” project, better known as the “Ike Dike.” This long-awaited initiative aims to protect Houston from devastating storm surges by constructing a massive sea wall system along the Bay of Galveston. The centerpiece of the system would be a set of 15 interlocking gates, the largest ones 22 feet high, that could slam shut during hurricane events. This would stop storm surges from pushing through the ship channel and into Houston, as happened during Hurricane Ike in 2008. The project would be one of the largest ever undertaken by the Corps, and it accounts for well over half the bill’s overall spending.
The bill also includes funding for another massive levee structure in Louisiana. The $1 billion Upper Barataria Basin project would stretch across 30 miles and seven parishes, bringing a new level of storm surge protection to the section of Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley.” Last year’s Hurricane Ida brought devastating flooding to many of these same areas, overtopping minor levees in towns like LaPlace, but the expanded levees should keep them safe from all but the largest storms. These levees have become all the more necessary as coastal erosion has erased much of Louisiana’s marshland, which previously acted as a natural barrier against flooding.
Around $1 billion will head to the Florida Keys, where the Corps can use it to elevate almost 5,000 homes along the archipelago of islands, where sea levels have risen around four inches since the turn of the century. The agency considered devoting the money to home buyouts, but it ultimately decided the buyouts wouldn’t be cost-effective in the Keys. Elsewhere in the country, though, the Corps has sought to buy out hundreds of homes, even telling some localities that it wanted them to use eminent domain to force people out of vulnerable areas.
In addition, the bill authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers to play a larger role in tackling climate-change-related phenomena like drought and coastal erosion. The agency already spends a lot of money on jetties and seawalls to stall erosion in places like New York City’s Rockaway Beach, but legislators are now mandating that Corps projects “shall be formulated to increase the resilience of such shore[lines] and [river]banks from the damaging impacts of extreme weather events and other factors.”
Rather than just dumping new sand on a beach that’s eroded, the Corps will have to consider how it could make that beach more resilient to future erosion, for instance by installing so-called living shorelines. The bill also allows the Corps to undertake drought response efforts in the West, a provision secured by Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona, whose state is experiencing an unprecedented drought that has been enhanced by climate change.
These new responsibilities fall outside the historical mandate of the Army Corps of Engineers, indicating that lawmakers want to turn the agency into a kind of Swiss army knife for climate adaptation. The notion of a civilian climate corps might be dead, but the non-civilian Corps is taking on a larger burden than ever when it comes to federal climate policy. Something similar is happening at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where lawmakers allocated billions of dollars for climate resilience and buyouts.
Still, even the biggest projects in the new Water Resources Development Act are little more than Band-Aids in the context of the nation’s vulnerability to floods and fires, and the bill does nothing to reduce the carbon emissions that increase this vulnerability. Nevertheless, the bill shows that climate adaptation remains palatable even to Republican politicians who answer to conservative voters. These politicians may not want to subsidize clean energy or reduce fossil fuel usage, but they have every incentive to dole out money for large capital projects in their states, and to show their constituents they’re helping make them safer.