Protecting America’s waters

A handful of members of Congress are currently negotiating the final pieces of a bill that will affect the fate of America’s rivers, coasts, and wetlands. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and the conference committee should protect our waters and save taxpayer dollars by crafting a final Water Resources Development Act that ensures a thorough vetting of all new federal water projects before they are built.

Unfortunately, the bills they are reconciling contain provisions that would gut existing safeguards, endangering wildlife and communities that live near and rely on these waters. As we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, poorly planned water projects like dams and levees can have disastrous consequences.

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For four decades the National Environmental Policy Act has required the federal government to “look before it leaps” before building any major project that could damage the health, welfare, and environment of local communities. Thoughtful reviews produce better, less costly projects and protect the American people from destructive boondoggles.

Here in California, environmental reviews revealed that a proposal intended to prevent the pristine Bolinas Lagoon from filling in with sediment would actually increase sedimentation, destroy a hundred acres of wetlands, and create large pools of stagnant, fetid water. As a result, the misguided plan was abandoned, saving taxpayers $133 million. 

The water bills currently under consideration would turn this thoughtful approach on its head. They would direct the Corps—an agency with a deeply troubled history—to “leap before it looks.” These bills will shortcut critical reviews and limit the ability of outside agencies and the public to have a meaningful say in how projects are built.

Some blame the existing review process for slowing down Corps projects, but delays in the construction of costly dams and levees have virtually nothing to do with the time spent vetting the proposals and everything to do with a lack of funding. The final Water Resources Development Act will add billions in new projects to the Corps’ current $60 billion backlog but Congress appropriates less than $2 billion each year for Corps construction.

With so much work already on the Corps’ plate, limited taxpayer dollars should fund only the smartest projects – projects that protect important water resources and communities. This requires that the public and experts have more input, not less.

We urge the conference committee to protect public participation and robust environmental review in the final Water Resources Development Act. Changes to the existing process should be evaluated through a pilot program or should sunset in five years so that unintended consequences can be addressed.

It’s time for Congress to get serious about protecting our rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands while getting started on creating a 21st century water infrastructure. Congress can do that—and protect taxpayer’s wallets—by passing a water resources bill that requires a complete and thorough vetting of any new proposal before it is built.

Schweiger is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. Van Noppen is president of Earthjustice.