Waterlogged

November 08, 2007

What should come first, reducing the flow of nitrogen into the Chesapeake Bay from the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant or expanding the Poplar Island dredge spoil site in the Baltimore Harbor?

Or how about restoring the C&O Canal at Cumberland or building offshore breakwaters to stop Smith Island from washing away? And where do these projects rank in priority against repairing levees in New Orleans or restoring the Florida Everglades?

No one can say exactly, and that's why President Bush was correct to veto the $23 billion water projects bill - with $300 million for Maryland included - that in one sense is wildly extravagant and in another is just a list of empty promises.

Instead of crowing over their first chance to override a Bush veto - as the House did Tuesday - senators should pare back the measure to fit within the confines of the roughly $2 billion annual budget for water-related construction. Backlogged projects already number more than 500, costing $58 billion.

Further, Congress should establish a more efficient means of setting construction priorities than according to the political clout of the sponsor. Typically, the Army Corps of Engineers, prompted by local politicians, has used economic benefit for determining which of the long list of approved projects it will undertake. But that criterion has led to many bad decisions, best exemplified by the destruction of wetlands in the Mississippi Delta that made New Orleans so vulnerable to Hurricane Katrina.

Weather, safety, wildlife and climate change are all factors that should be weighed. Congress should name a panel of outside experts to prioritize water projects according to merit and urgency.

Lawmakers alone simply can't restrain themselves. They combined a $15 billion House bill with a $14 billion Senate bill to produce a $23 billion total product - well beyond any reasonable expectation of fulfillment for decades to come.

Fiscal discipline may be coming late in Mr. Bush's tenure, but in this case it's more than justified. His veto of this lard bucket deserves to be sustained - and a slimmer, trimmer, more responsible measure should be sent to his desk instead.

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