Corps of Engineers "Spread Thin," Study Says

By Steve Gravelle, Reporter

In this Sept. 19, 2012 file photo, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Col. Chris Hall points to a vertical, rock-filled steel tube called a "protector cell" that serves as a buffer that Mississippi River barges rub against, aligning them before they actually enter the lock in Granite City, Ill. Emergency repairs are under way on that structure after workers discovered that an unarmored portion of it exposed by river levels dramatically lowered by the drought split open, spilling much of the rock into the channel and forcing the channel to be closed to shipping. The Mississippi River's 70-year-old system of locks and dams urgently needs upgrades to accommodate barges that have gotten bigger over time, a group of federal lawmakers is warning after last week's dayslong shutdown of the river's busiest lock. (AP Photo/Jim Suhr)

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By Liz Blood

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Cedar Rapids officials and residents want the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take the lead in a building a system to prevent the city from future floods. Farmers in Northeast Iowa depend on the Corps to maintain the locks and dams on the Mississippi River so barges can transport crops to market.

Is it realistic to expect a single agency handle both? A report suggests so.

The report released yesterday by the National Research Council finds the Corps is in "an unsustainable situation" to maintain its present water projects, let alone to take on new ones. The report, sponsored by the Corps itself, calls for "federal leadership and action" to reform how the agency is funded and prioritizes projects.

That assumes political will and an agreeable economic climate.

"It’s a little bit unfair to say the Corps needs more money now in relation to other programs," said Larry Weber, director of the University of Iowa's IIHR, the former Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research. "Water resources-type projects are a lot more likely for congressional funding in times when the economy’s growing, and anything related to operations and maintenance is always deferred."

Congressman Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa City, said he's trying to get Republicans, farm groups, and others to cooperate on Corps reform.

"Unfortunately partisan politics has held up another important initiative to help our economy grow,” Loebsack said in a statement issued by his office.

The study panel found the Corps' roles in "navigation, flood risk management, ecosystem restoration, hurricane and storm damage reduction, water supply, hydroelectric power generation, and recreation" developed case by case, with little coordination. Much of the agency's current infrastructure is worn out.

"The focus of the report seems to me to be the infrastructure deficit this country has had for the past 30 years or so," said state Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, who's been active in watershed issues since the June 2008 flood. "I am a little concerned that they are really focused on maintnenace and operations of existing facilities as opposed to new facilities, like we need. If the lesson learned from this is we’ve just got to hunker down, that’s not going to work."

The report suggests the Corps become closer partners with state and local governments in developing and maintaining new facilities - such as Cedar Rapids' hoped-for system of flood walls and levee. Similarly, a larger share of a project's maintenance costs should be raised from those who most directly benefit.

"That might divert money from a place like Cedar Rapids, but on the other hand it does point out we have an infrastructure deficit," said Hogg.

"You hear people all throughout the navigation system saying this system has been underfunded and under-appreciated, and that whole community of people has been a adamantly opposed to user fees for the lock system," said Weber. "They’re spread really thin, and I think what they have is a system that has a whole bunch of really weak links and all they can do is try to fix those links before they break."

Besides decommissioning some facilities, "more specific direction from the executive branch and Congress regarding priorities for maintenance investments will be crucial to sustaining the Corps' high-priority and most valuable infrastructure," according to the report summary.

"We need the Army Corps of Engineers empowered to do more, not less," said Hogg. "In Cedar Rapids this is a high priority. The one thing we need more than anything else to make our recovery succeed is long-term flood protection, and we need the federal goverment to step up and help us do that."

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