The Corps of Engineers soon will ask Congress to deauthorize dozens of not-yet-constructed water projects, whose estimated cost totals $5 billion. Lt. Gen. Robert B. Flowers, the Chief of Engineers, told a Senate hearing on June 18 that he plans to send the proposal to Congress immediately. Another Corps official said the number of projects on the deauthorizing list would be about 50 to 75. The Corps' total project backlog is about $40 billion.

(Illustration by
Guy Lawrence for ENR)

Flowers said there would be various types of projects included and also indicated that they would tend to be ones authorized some time ago. Thus, their original congressional sponsors may no longer be in Congress to argue to keep the projects alive.

In addition, Flowers suggested that a second group of projects be reviewed by an interagency group. That panel, not yet established, could recommend deauthorizing some projects, or speeding up work on others, if their merits appear stronger now than when first approved. Flowers didn't specify how large that group of projects would be, or their total cost.

While overall Corps funding did draw some attention at the hearing, held by the Environment and Public Works Committee, lawmakers spent more time on proposals to change how the Corps reviews and justifies its new projects. Legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate that would require some Corps project studies to be reviewed by outside specialists. The Senate version gained a powerful co-sponsor on June 18, Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.)

Corps cost-benefit analyses have been a particular target of criticism. Flowers acknowledged, "We've had a couple of high-profile failures recently. That's unacceptable." They include a 1998 analysis for a proposed $420-million Delaware River deepening. In a report released June 10, the General Accounting Office criticized the Corps analysis for containing "material errors" and overstating the project's benefits threefold. The Corps put the dredging job on hold several weeks earlier after GAO briefed it about the tentative findings.

The committee's ranking Republican, Bob Smith of New Hampshire, who introduced one of the Corps reform bills, said provisions of that legislation must be included in the next Water Resources Development Act, which also authorizes new Corps projects. But committee member Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) threatened to bottle up a WRDA bill if reform provisions also slowed down project approval time. Bond has Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), among others, on his side.

Flowers and R.L. Brownlee, acting assistant Army secretary for civil works, told the panel that the Corps needs to make changes. But they didn't enthusiastically endorse immediate legislative reforms. They said the Corps could make some of the changes on its own and also said they wanted to wait for recommendations from a National Academy of Sciences panel report on outside project reviews. That report is due this summer.