Water wish list

May 18, 2007

Under pressure from fiscal conservatives and environmental advocates, Congress is trying to figure out how to finance water projects on a basis other than political influence. But old habits die hard.

A $14 billion measure approving funds for purposes such as flood control, shore erosion and channel dredging includes for the first time a requirement that the largest projects be subject to independent review outside the Army Corps of Engineers. It also identifies lawmakers requesting specific projects.

But both the House and Senate versions of the bill fail to include any mechanism for setting priorities. Instead, they simply add scores of new projects to what is already a $58 billion backlog. That's not much progress.

Maryland is targeted for $300 million in the water bill approved by the Senate this week (after serving as a vehicle for test votes on ending the Iraq war). There are no guarantees, however, on when or even if that money will materialize. First it has to be included in Congress' annual spending package, which typically includes $2 billion worth of water projects for the whole country - hence the backlog.

The Army Corps of Engineers generally gives preference to projects that would create the greatest economic benefit, a criterion that Congress came to view as too narrow. As a result, though, the selection method became almost completely driven by sponsor clout, according to a recent study by Environmental Defense and the National Wildlife Federation. The flaws in this method were exposed by the devastation Hurricane Katrina caused in New Orleans, which not only had inadequate levees but also was robbed of the natural protection of wetlands.

There may be no purely objective means to prioritize water projects on a national basis; the needs of each region are so different. But a good place to start would be developing a priority list within each state, much the way federal transportation money is awarded.

Instead, the Senate bill takes a step backward by awarding each state a $20 million to $50 million slush fund for drinking water and wastewater projects that individual senators will be able to dole out as they see fit.

Federal help for such projects is sorely needed in Maryland and elsewhere. But the case for each ought to be made on its merits, not as a payoff for some senator's support.

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