Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator John McCain today released the following statement on the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA) conference agreement:
“Mr. President, today the Senate is considering the conference agreement for the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA).This bill contains roughly $12.3 billion in additional authorized spending for a variety of water projects that fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civil works division. This bill supports the construction and maintenance of many of our nation’s dams, levees, harbors, ports, and river ways to name a few.
“For being such an important bill, the American people may wonder why the last time Congress passed a WRDA law was seven years ago in 2007.
“The reason, Mr. President, is that it took Congress seven years to finally respond to public pressure demanding Army Corps reform. As my colleagues know, the Corps has long been criticized by government auditors, taxpayer watchdogs and environmental groups for employing highly questionable economic models and environmental studies to justify its construction projects. A large number of Army Corps projects have been pegged as government boondoggles flush with waste, fraud and abuse due to cost-overruns and cut-corner construction. Perhaps the best known example is the flooding of New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina disaster that was traced back to substandard Corps levees, poor planning and gutted coastal wetlands. Years later, an independent study by the American Society of Engineers commissioned by the Corps concluded that, ‘a large portion of the destruction from Hurricane Katrina was caused by... engineering and engineering-policy failures made over many years at almost all levels of responsibility.’
“But as much as the Corps’ bad management practices are to blame, the truth is that we in Congress are not without fault. For decades, Congress has used each WRDA bill to pile on construction project on top of construction project as a way for members to ‘bring home the bacon’ in their states. Layers of these pork projects have created a $60 billion construction backlog, and the Army Corps simply can’t complete them all with their $2 billion annual construction appropriation. Cutting corners and cooking their books is one simply one way they bend to political priorities set by Congress.
“I appreciate that the conference agreement implements some modest Corps reforms, particularly addressing the agency’s $60 billion construction backlog. This bill requires Army Corps to ‘de-authorize’ up to $18 billion in Corps projects, most of which have never received construction funding to begin with. This is a step in the right direction, but unfortunately this bill’s ‘savings' are washed away by the $12 billion in new authorized spending included in this bill. Additionally, the conference agreement makes it impossible to de-authorize $28 billion in projects that were authorized in the 2007 WRDA law – a bill that was vetoed by President Bush for containing too much government waste but was subsequently overridden by Congress.
“This bill also falls short by not giving the Army Corps clear parameters on what projects should be treated as national priorities. The conferees even eliminated a law that requires the Corps to send their most costly and controversial projects to undergo an ‘Independent Peer Review’ process. All of this means there will be less transparency and oversight into the Corps decision-making process. So I’m sorry to say I must question the veracity of ‘reform’ in this conference agreement.
“Mr. President, I worry that ultimately this WRRDA conference agreement means that Army Corps projects of lower-priority will continue to supersede projects that address serious, life-threatening issues across the nation and in my home state of Arizona. This lack of prioritization with Corp projects comes at a real cost to the American taxpayer. Take for example the Rio de Flag Flood Control Project in Flagstaff, Arizona. The Army Corps knows that a single large flood event along the Rio de Flag River could easily wipe out the city’s downtown area and Northern Arizona University, affecting half their population and causing $93 million in economic damage. After undergoing the appropriate feasibility studies, Congress authorized $24 million in 2000 to construct a 1.6-mile flood water channel and a detention basin to redirect the water away from the community. For 14 years, this project – again, just 1.6 miles – has languished partially because of the Corps’ $60 billion construction backlog. The Corps spends less than $3 million a year on Rio de Flag while Congress plays favorites with other projects on their plate. This approach of funding Army Corps projects piecemeal over the years has inflated the total estimated cost of Rio de Flag from $24 million to $101.5 million.
“Rio de Flag is a serious public safety project and yet it’s behind schedule and way over budget. In fact, the only competed portion of the project is a 4,000-foot levee, which is cracked due to shoddy construction by an Army Corps contractor. I’m told that the Army Corps recently ordered the contractor to repair the broken levee, of course at the added expense of the American taxpayer and the City of Flagstaff. Now the project faces more delays because the Army Corps has been slowly dragging out its ‘updated economic analysis’ for Rio De Flag for the past 3 years, leaving the city unnecessarily vulnerable to disaster and causing the project’s price tag to rise even higher.
“Mr. President, I have a longstanding practice of abstaining from legislating projects to WRDA bills out of principle that each project should be prioritized based on national need. But it’s hard to argue that Flagstaff isn’t one of these national priorities, or that the current practice of piling on Army Corps projects isn’t contributing mismanagement across the entire agency. Ultimately, this conference agreement does little to change the Corps’ culture of bad decisions that affect Rio de Flag and similar projects. Congress will not be blameless if a flood event larger than what Flagstaff occasionally sees inundates the city, destroys property, or claims innocent lives.
“Mr. President, I appreciate the need to pass a WRDA bill after seven years, but I’m concerned that this bill is just a new coat of paint on the same broken system. I urge my colleagues to oppose this conference agreement.”