A National Academy of Sciences panel has recommended that outside specialists should review Corps of Engineers feasibility studies for big water projects.

The NAS report, released July 25, provides strong backup for environmentalists' long campaign for third-party vetting of Corps analyses. The NAS committee says that panels composed of "impartial, highly qualified experts" should review Corps studies "that are expensive, that will affect a large area, that are highly controversial or that involve high levels of risk."

The NAS panel also says the outside review cannot be the final "thumbs up/thumbs down" on a project, but "an evaluation aid to the Chief of Engineers, who is ultimately responsible for the final decision."

Maj. Gen. Robert Griffin, the Corps' civil works director, says, "We are glad to have this report in hand, and are beginning to review it." He adds, "As the process evolves, we will all have to be mindful of taxpayers' interests in developing the Chief of Engineers reports, carefully considering the most effective and efficient means possible."

Corps analyses for some large projects, including dredging of the Delaware River, have been criticized for faulty economic analyses.

Melissa Samet, senior director for water resources with the environmental group American Rivers, says, "We are very pleased but not surprised, by the National Academy's finding. The report strips away all lingering excuses for not implementing this key reform."

The NAS panel notes that from 1902 until 1992, the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors--composed entirely of Corps personnel--reviewed the agency's study reports for projects, and often changed Corps division engineers' positive recommendations for projects. Following recommendations by the Corps, Congress abolished the board in 1992. A Central Review Center at the Corps now reviews feasibility studies and major decision reports.

The NAS committee says, "There was an era in the CorpsÕ and the nationÕs history when review of Corps projects by the Board of Rivers and Harbors was adequate." But now, the panel says, "In a planning context where [water resources-related] problems are understood to be more complex, in need of the input from multiple disciplines and, in many cases, the perspectives of stakeholders, and are often highly politicized, internal review of all Corps projects is not adequate."

Griffin says the Corps is working on improving its planning and review process.

In June, Chief of Engineers Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers and acting assistant Army secretary for civil works R.L. Brownlee told a Senate committee hearing that Corps planning needs to change, but they didn't completely embrace independent reviews. They said the Corps could make some improvements internally. They also said at the time they wanted to see what the NAS recommendations would be.