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Author: Gerald E. Galloway
No policies or standards are in place for individual water sectors or for water resources as a whole.
Hurricane Katrina focused the nation’s attention on the fragility of our built environment and, perhaps, on the limitations of engineering. As people in New Orleans and the rest of coastal Louisiana struggle to deal with the aftermath of Katrina and her sister hurricane, Rita, we all worked together to respond to the immediate needs of the victims, develop plans for short-term recovery of the communities and their inhabitants, and set a direction for the future use of lands devastated by nature’s forces and the compromise of the levee systems that were supposed to protect them. As a nation, we moved forward quickly with the first task and are moving now to assist with short-term recovery. But we appear to be stumbling as we attempt to develop long-term plans for the region.
Among other things, Katrina sent us a wake-up call about the water policy issues facing coastal Louisiana and the nation. Unfortunately, unless you consider the jumble of conflicting, outdated federal laws, regulations, and procedures that deal with water, a national policy, the United States is operating without a water policy that would help us establish goals, objectives, and priorities to meet the significant challenges of reconstructing coastal Louisiana and address other challenges in the future.
Coastal Louisiana sits at the end of a natural funnel that carries the waters of the Mississippi River Basin into the Gulf of Mexico, draining 41 percent of the coterminous United States and parts of two provinces of Canada (Figure 1 see PDF version for figures). The quality and quantity of these flows are determined by natural and human-induced actions far from Louisiana.
People have lived on the banks of the Mississippi at New Orleans since 1718 and before that were scattered across the large deltaic plain south of the city (Figure 2). People originally lived along the Mississippi on the higher ground, the natural levees. Faced with periodic rises in the river, they gradually increased their protection against flooding by building levees on top of the natural levees. The Mississippi Delta provided an extensive buffer that reduced the impact of hurricanes on the city; the distance from the Gulf and the nature of the wetland terrain worked together to limit the size of storm-created surges that moved toward the city from the Gulf of Mexico.1 Over time, the original settlement of New Orleans grew into the backwater wetlands north of the natural levees by filling lowlands (land below sea level) between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. By the end of the twentieth century, most of the lowlands were occupied.
As the extraction of energy from the coastal region became more feasible, the oil and gas industry moved throughout the delta, crisscrossing it with channels for pipelines and boat access to remote extraction sites. The coastline itself became home to a significant proportion of the nation’s petroleum industry, offering ports, processing plants, and support facilities for off-shore oil drilling platforms. Most of the region was protected from massive flooding of the Mississippi River by a carefully developed flood-control system that efficiently moved Mississippi River waters past New Orleans and, during critical periods, diverted some of the rising waters around New Orleans though three floodways that sent them on other paths to the Gulf.
Hurricane Betsy, which hit New Orleans in 1965, showed clearly, however, that the back door to New Orleans, Lake Pontchartrain, was open and that storm surges moving into the area through Lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne would flood low lying areas north and east of the original settlement.
This led to congressional authorization for hurricane protection and the construction, over the next 20 years, of several projects designed to protect the area against 0.5 percent to 0.33 percent annual chance hurricane events.2 Given that coastal areas in the Netherlands and Japan are protected against the 0.01 percent event (10,000 year), many considered the 0.5 to 0.33 level of protection too low.
When Katrina ripped into the Gulf Coast, several levees and floodwalls failed, and many more were overtopped. Levees protecting the city of New Orleans against the Mississippi remained intact.
Immediately after the hurricane, attention was focused on rebuilding levees. The president of the United States stood in downtown New Orleans and declared, “Protecting a city that sits lower than the water around it is not easy, but it can, and has been done.” He went on to promise that “. . . the Army Corps of Engineers will work . . . to make the flood protection system stronger than it has ever been.” But what does that mean?
While the president was speaking in New Orleans, others were raising the issue of protection for the rest of coastal Louisiana and the need for restoration of the delta wetlands. For more than two decades, people who lived in, worked in, or enjoyed the natural wonders of the deltaic plain had been pointing out the yearly loss of 40 square miles of wetlands and the shrinking coastline that was daily reducing the flood protection for greater New Orleans, delta communities, the oil and gas industry, and the commercial fishermen who work in the Gulf and contribute $2.8 billion to the state and national economy (USACE, 2004).
After Katrina, there were also concerns about getting the world-linked navigation industry back in business. Southern Louisiana, the nation’s largest port complex, annually handles nearly 200 million short tons of cargo. It is also a transfer point for barges bringing millions of tons of bulk commodities from farmlands, mines, and factories throughout the Midwest and the terminus of the 12,300-mile Mississippi River inland waterway system. Shipping in Louisiana depends on having deep-draft channels from Baton Rouge to the Gulf and a well maintained inland waterway system (USACE, 2005).
Dealing with Multiple Challenges
The restoration of wetlands, protection from floods, and the maintenance of navigation are not stand-alone issues. Much of the deterioration of the wetlands has taken place because Mississippi River sediment, which for thousands of years had been spread across the delta forming one delta lobe after another, is being channeled into the Gulf of Mexico by the levees that line much of the Mississippi from Cairo, Illinois, to the Gulf. These levees keep the water off of the land and, together with dikes and concrete revetments, main-tain deep channels that support navigation. In addition, the once-rich sediment load of the river has been cut nearly in half over the last half-century by large dams built on the Missouri and Arkansas Rivers to support navigation, flood control, irrigation, and hydropower in those basins (Kesel, 1989).
At the same time, nutrients in the waters flowing from the rich farmlands of the Midwest have created a hypoxic dead zone where the Mississippi enters the Gulf of Mexico (NOAA, 2006). Upstream agricultural and industrial activity has sent pollutants into the Mississippi and has threatened the quality of the water supply for communities in the lower Mississippi Valley. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency has identified surface water and groundwater quality in the delta as subjects of concern. Both New Orleans and the delta also suffer from natural and human-induced subsidence that lowers the landscape; at the same time, accelerating sea level rise is covering more and more wetland areas and moving back the shoreline (Working Group, 2006).
It would be logical to deal with all of these problems in an integrated way so the solution to one problem is balanced against its impact, positive or negative, on the others. The ultimate solution must deal concurrently with all of these issues. Long before Katrina, there were pleas that hurricane protection be increased to a level in keeping with the threat, and Congress had authorized a study to look into increasing protection. In addition, both federal and state agencies were developing plans for the restoration of coastal Louisiana, and an AMERICA’S WETLAND campaign to bring the coastal restoration challenge to the attention of the public had already begun.
When the hurricane hit, legislation for a Louisiana coastal-area restoration project was awaiting action in the Office of Management and Budget; similar legislative initiatives were under way in Washington and Baton Rouge to enhance the navigation system and address ongoing water quality issues. But these actions were proceeding on parallel paths with little or no coordination. The goals of each action were being developed on the fly with no master plan of how these efforts would relate to each other.
Decisions about restoring coastal Louisiana and New Orleans must be based on a comprehensive vision embedded in national policies. Programs and standards developed for New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta may well have to be applied to programs in other parts of the country. In Congress, precedents do matter. Unfortunately, neither visions nor policies nor standards have been established for individual water sectors or for water resources as a whole.
The approach to water policy has varied over time and, with few exceptions, has focused on water sectors as opposed to water as an integrated whole. More than 125 years ago, Congress made known its goal of supporting navigation on the Mississippi River when it formed the Mississippi River Commission and chartered it to “. . . improve and give safety and ease to navigation . . . and promote and facilitate commerce, trade, and the postal service” (33 USC 647). Over the years, Congress has authorized the construction of lock and dam navigation systems on many other rivers. The Reclamation Act of 1902 put forward a vision for encouraging settlement of the arid West and the use of western lands for agriculture. Putting aside questions about the uses of water, the vision of 1902 did, in fact, look beyond a five- or ten-year horizon to establish a program in keeping with a policy, accomplished a defined goal, and brought people and water to the West.
Water Policy has focused
more on water sectors than on
water as an integrated whole.
In 1927, the lower Mississippi Valley was hard hit by a “flood of record” that killed hundreds of people and displaced thousands. Congress responded with the Flood Control Act of 1928 (PL 70-391), which assigned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Mississippi River Commission the mission of preventing a repetition of the event, indicated that the control of floods was “. . . in the interests of national prosperity, the flow of interstate commerce, and the movement of the United States mails . . . ,” and acknowledged that this was a province of the federal government. Eight years later, when much of the nation was hit by disastrous floods, Congress passed the 1936 Flood Control Act, stating that “. . . destructive floods upon the rivers . . . constitute a menace to national welfare; it is the sense of Congress that flood control is a proper activity of the Federal Government.” The act went on to posit that “. . . the Federal Government should improve or participate in improvements . . . for flood control purposes if the benefits to whomsoever they accrue are in excess of the estimated costs . . .” (33 USC 701).
The 1928 and 1936 acts provided a clear national policy, and federal agencies quickly took on the mission of flood control. They understood this mission to be keeping floodwaters away from people by building structures to prevent flood damage.3 Given these marching orders, USACE set out to protect communities from the largest probable flood that might occur in the river basin under consideration, a flood that generally is larger than a 0.2 percent annual chance event.
Similar broad, water-related legislation was passed in the mid-twentieth century to deal with hydropower, the formation of a Tennessee Valley Authority, and the protection of endangered species and a number of related environmental issues. The National Environmental Policy Act, National Flood Insurance Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act provided sectoral goals for the water community.
In an effort to bring together water-resource activities and establish standards for federally supported water-development activities, Congress passed the Water Resources Planning Act of 1965 (42 USC 1962), which established river-basin commissions to undertake comprehensive, multi-objective planning. The law established a federal Water Resources Council that was charged with coordinating government water policies and promulgating “principles and standards” to guide the development of water resources. In 1973, the Water Resources Council released Principles and Standards for water-resources development, which required that federal agencies take into account national and regional economic development, environmental quality, and social effects in their planning (USWRC, 1973).
A Change in Course
Although efforts were being made to broaden the basis for considering water projects, pressures on the federal budget and a raft of studies about government inefficiency led to the tightening of federal standards for cost-benefit analyses and a focus on the economic component of analyses to the detriment of other factors. In 1981, the Reagan administration provided no funds for the Water Resources Council and abolished the river basin commissions. In place of Principles and Standards, the administration issued Principles and Guidelines, which stated that the “. . . Federal objective of water and related land resources project planning is to contribute to national economic development [emphasis added] consistent with protecting the Nation’s environment” (USWRC, 1983).
In 1986, Congress and the administration greatly increased the cost-sharing requirement for states and localities requesting that federal water projects be built in their regions. Although this ensured that the local sponsors would be invested in the projects, it also gave local governments the right to have more say in how projects might be developed and to object to aspects of projects, such as environmental restoration, that they might see as meeting federal goals as opposed to local needs.
By the end of the 1980s, the water-resources share of the federal budget had been severely reduced. The USACE water budget had been cut nearly in half, and the Bureau of Reclamation had moved into an operations and maintenance mode. The net result of 30 years of focusing attention on economic benefit-cost analyses, cost-sharing, and the virtual elimination of comprehensive planning led to an almost exclusive focus on individual projects that met the national economic-development test.
Between 1965 and 2005, in the flood-control arena, levels of protection provided by new projects were designed less to protect against the large events envisioned in the 1930s than to provide the most favorable benefit-cost ratios; little consideration was given to the non-quantifiable social and human safety costs of the lack of protection.
Because new projects do not fully consider the environmental and social consequences of a lack of protection, most of them hover at the 1 percent (100-year) level of protection, the level that exempts those protected by the project from the mandatory purchase requirements of the National Flood Insurance Program. So as New Orleans and coastal Louisiana moved into the twenty-first century in search of a higher level of protection for area residents, they were up against a federal government operating on an ad hoc basis with no set standards.
In addition to the policy drought, there is a growing serious backlog of maintenance and upgrades of the nation’s infrastructure, as is apparent from internal government reports. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), in its fifth Report Card on the condition of the nation’s infrastructure that included water, gave the nation’s infrastructure a grade of D (ASCE, 2005). The cost of addressing the backlog of maintenance and required upgrades, much of it water related, is more than $1.0 trillion. But the backlog has received little attention (or funding).
Since 1983, there has
been no central direction
or coordinatino of water-
Examining the Problem
The last comprehensive look at how we manage our water was undertaken in 1973 by a National Water Commission (NWC, 1973), and no major technical assessment of the status of water has been done since 1976. Flood-damage reduction programs were addressed in a 1994 study (Interagency Floodplain Management Review Committee, 1994), but little was done in response to the report. A recent report of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy (2004) has received similar treatment in Washington.
Since 1983, when the Water Resources Council was effectively abolished, there has been no central direction to or coordination of federal water efforts among the many departments that deal with water issues. Congress remains locked in a turf-conscious committee system that does not encourage coordination. Except for enforcing water quality standards, there is little federal guidance, other than budgetary or ad hoc initiatives, on other water issues.
Given the present policy vacuum and the reluctance on the part of Congress and the administration to support comprehensive planning, New Orleans and coastal Louisiana will have to develop, in coordination with federal agencies, their own vision for the future and move ahead in a way that brings together solutions to the many water challenges facing the region. This comprehensive plan must address all aspects of coastal Louisiana’s water challenges.