Rep. Blumenauer tries to slow down corps' massive Upper Mississippi River project

With the House slated to take up the Water Resources Development Act this week, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) will offer an amendment to restrict construction of a $1.8 billion lock expansion project. Should the National Academy of Sciences take another look at the controversial Upper Mississippi River plan? Will farm interests push the project through? Is the project symbolic of other Army Corps of Engineers projects in need of reform? The Oregon Democrat joins E&ETV to discuss his amendment and the fate of WRDA legislation in Congress this year.


Colin Sullivan: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. The Water Resources Development Act heads to the floor today and one of the biggest fights is going to be over an amendment from Representative Earl Blumenauer on the Upper Mississippi River lock expansion. With us to discuss his amendment is Representative Earl Blumenauer. Congressman thanks for being here.

Earl Blumenauer: My pleasure.

Colin Sullivan: Now your amendment could prevent a proposed $1.8 billion expansion project on the Upper Mississippi River from going forward, Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Can you tell us why that's justified, why you think it's important?

Earl Blumenauer: Well this is a troubled project, for the last dozen years. It has basically been predicated on the notion that we need to make this massive investment, which will be the largest navigation project in United States history, to deal with ever increasing demands for barge movement on the Mississippi River system. The problem is that the barge traffic actually has been flat since 1980. It's actually declined since 1982. No justification whatsoever for this massive investment, particularly when there are alternative ways that can help move the flow of product on the Mississippi River much more cost effectively with no environmental damage.

Colin Sullivan: Now the total price tag of the language that we're talking about is actually $3.4 billion, $1.6 billion of that is for environmental restoration, $1.8 [billion] of it is for expansion of the Upper Mississippi lock system. Can you talk about -- can you separate the two issues? I mean environmentalists are against the $1.8 billion, but they're for the $1.6 billion and some of the critics of your amendment, also environmental groups, have said why are they for their own $1.6 [billion], but against the $1.8 [billion]?

Earl Blumenauer: Well first of all, bear in mind that there's the great potential of bait and switch here. I mean the bloated farm bill was sold in part because it had some of these environmental investments and what did we see? When budget crunch came, those were the first ones chopped. We're not going to get $1.6 billion for environmental restoration in the Mississippi River system although it's badly needed. The point is the river is degraded. We've treated it like a machine, and we should be making this restoration investment. That should happen whether we do the lock project or not. The problem here is that we have another $1.8 billion that is targeted to solve a problem that doesn't exist.

Colin Sullivan: Some of your critics also say that basically it's a backdoor attempt to try to kill the project by calling for another National Academy of Sciences study on a project which has already occurred. What's your response to that?

Earl Blumenauer: Well first of all there are no studies that are called for under our amendment that aren't already required under the major bill. There will be ongoing studies that will be done. All we're saying under this bill is that the minimum projection of 35 million tons of product through the locks has to be hit over the next three years. This is the minimum, minimum that is required to make the project cost efficient. If they can do that then the project goes forward. It doesn't delay the project because the corps has testified that it'll take four or five years before they can go to construction under the most optimal terms, and actually the number of 35 million tons has been hit four out of the last seven years. But the trend line is down and the product is not going down the Mississippi River for export, but it's going by rail to Canada, to Mexico under NAFTA or is being spent for ethanol or animal feed in the United States.

Colin Sullivan: Obviously, you have a number of pretty powerful interest groups lined up against what you're trying to do, the corn industry or the grain industry or the soybean industry. Can you talk about their influence on Capitol Hill and how they've sort of cut off -- other congressmen might not have such open ears to your amendment.

Earl Blumenauer: Well I would never bet against the agribusiness interests and any modest advantage that they can get, even if it is at lavish cost to the taxpayers, they are likely to be for. They're well organized. They're entrenched and it has sort of an appeal, you know, to be making this investment and frankly there are lots of jobs at stake. But the flip side of this is that people who care about the environment, people who care about the taxpayer's treatment, understand that there are better ways to invest this money. Everybody in the United States who has a water project needs to look at this expenditure, because if it is approved we'll be talking about 10 to 15 percent per year of the total construction budget for years to come, perhaps decades. So that means many higher priority projects are going to be under funded or not funded at all.

Colin Sullivan: Well taking a step back, I mean part of what you're getting at is WRDA hasn't passed since 2000 and largely over this dispute over Army Corps reform. Why did you decide to just go after the Upper Mississippi River Project and not go after a wider ranging or broader Army Corps reform effort at this point?

Earl Blumenauer: We've been working with the subcommittee staff and the chair and ranking member trying to get these principles moved forward. This is the single most, I think, important symbol of whether the Corps of Engineers is going to be designing projects for the distant past, not even the recent past, and wasting resources or whether we can get people to look at priorities and move forward. I think being able to focus this one thing is the most important, but we have other things that we'll be working on in terms of updating the principles and guidelines for the Corps of Engineers, which haven't been updated since 1983. And ultimately getting true independent peer review, but there is some movement under the bill. This will give us an opportunity to train the spotlight with some people who frankly haven't paid much attention to it.

Colin Sullivan: What's your response to some of the interests who say, well, the Upper Mississippi River lock system hasn't been upgraded since the Depression? What's your response?

Earl Blumenauer: It's not true. We have spent almost a billion dollars in the last 30 years taking the individual locks -- in fact, we've got the $70 [million] or $80 million that's being spent right now on a lock that's going to be replaced by a huge adjacent lock under this new proposal. It is simply not true and anybody can go back and look at the budget, almost a billion dollars upgrading this system. What we would be doing instead is creating a parallel system of larger locks for almost $2 billion.

Colin Sullivan: Now how did you find yourself -- it's sort of a case of strange bedfellows here that you're offering the amendment with Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona. How did you team up with him to go ahead for this amendment?

Earl Blumenauer: Well we have been working on Capitol Hill with the Green Scissors Coalition. That is people who care about getting maximum value for the taxpayer, people who care about environmental protection, people who just care about things that make common sense. Congressman Flake and I don't agree on many things philosophically, but when it comes to value for the taxpayer we find that there are a number of areas that we agree. And this is part of what we can do environmentally, is reach out and broaden the coalition, because so many things that are good for the environment actually cost less in terms of tax dollar subsidy. And Jeff and I have done -- just two weeks ago we had an amendment that cut down on unnecessary publication of the Congressional Record.

Colin Sullivan: Do you think you have the votes? I mean there seems to be a pretty strong array of interests aligned against you.

Earl Blumenauer: There is a huge array of interests, people that are coming in agitating, but as a practical matter we have a number of people on Capitol Hill who are deeply concerned about the environment. We have a large number of people who are concerned about budget deficits and taking care of the dollars. We anticipate a good bipartisan vote. We're getting editorial support all over the country. I mean it is the right thing to do. As I say, betting against some of these powerful interests is not a way to get rich, but I think we're making progress. I think we've got a reasonable shot. The facts are on our side. If it were either a secret vote or it were something where people were really voting on the information in front of them, I think we'd be in good shape, but I think we've got a good shot at a strong vote.

Colin Sullivan: It sounds like you're leaving open the possibility that you aren't going to win. What happens next? What happens next if you don't have the votes?

Earl Blumenauer: Well this project, I don't think, will ever be constructed. I think this is a dinosaur, to paraphrase Vice President Cheney, it's in the last throes. We're not going to do stuff like this again. It's got a verdict that has just been trashed by the National Academy of Science. The inspector general found that the corps cooked the books. Earlier in this there'd been whistleblower action and ultimately, I think there are so many competing compelling alternatives that this project over the course of the next 10 years will never be completely built. I hope that we can make sure that if it doesn't pass muster, in terms of a change in barge traffic, I'm hopeful we can just put it to rest. But for me, this is the single most important opportunity to put the spotlight on it in a way that has never happened before in Congress. And I think we're going to build momentum ultimately that unless radical things change, this project, I don't think, will be built.

Colin Sullivan: Why do you think Army Corps reform, taking a step back again, why do you think Army Corps reform is such a hard sell in Congress? I mean as you said, that whistleblower came out in 2000 saying that Army Corps had essentially cooked the books on the Upper Mississippi River Project expansion. And every year when we track the energy and water spending bill, which funds the Army Corps of Engineers, in every year you'll see the head of the Army Corps dragged into the energy and water subcommittee in the House and House members don't have kind words to say about fiscal management. There's this huge backlog of projects. There's a-- now WRDA would enact a whole bunch new projects, so there's all of these being stacking up. Given all this, why is it such a hard sell? Why doesn't it happen?

Earl Blumenauer: Well, that's why I focused on this project. We've got to raise the profile. If members spent an hour or two looking at this, changes would occur. You're right. We've got almost a $60 billion backlog of many projects that should no longer be on that list. They're outdated. They're bad projects and people in the corps will tell you that, but we've got a political process where you don't get that attention, it kind of moves forward. There are powerful vested interests for keeping these things on the books and people are slow to understand what the alternatives are. I think the pendulum is shifting, I find that around the country. The record of bad projects is such that it gives people pause and this is sort of the trophy project for doing things differently. We are working hard to engage more people. Frankly, it hasn't been the priority of the environmental community. In part because we've had to fight against some really bad things that are going on, in part because this is complex, arcane, it doesn't grab people the way some of the other items do.

Colin Sullivan: Well why should it be important to the environmental community? I mean you're right. They haven't been as engaged in this issue as they have been in others. Is it because of the fig leaf that you talked about before, the $1.6 billion for environmental restoration that's included in the WRDA bill at this point? I mean sure, there's $1.8 [billion] for Upper Mississippi expansion, but there's also a lot of money in there for the environment.

Earl Blumenauer: Well, I truly think that water resources have been complex. They haven't had the forum in Congress that allows the spotlight to be trained and people are being pulled in many different directions. But what's happening is that the way we utilize water in this country is forcing a number of people to move in more thoughtful environmentally friendly approaches. But we're going, I hate to use the term upstream, but there are massive inertial forces. Look what just happened in terms of a California water giveaway recently where the administration's willing to sign away water rights, valuable water rights, for basically the next 50 years in a way that could be used more creatively to solve California's water resources problems and finance California's water resource problems for a century to come. But again, we can't keep going the way we're going. It's a case of building the momentum, helping people understand it and being able to get the political will to do things more appropriately.

Colin Sullivan: Well what's your prediction then? Do you think we're going to a WRDA reauthorization this year --

Earl Blumenauer: Yeah.

Colin Sullivan: -- after three years of no WRDA?

Earl Blumenauer: I think WRDA will be approved. I think it will be a better bill than we've had. Part of the problem, frankly, is we've lost some of the momentum in the Senate that would've helped us to further move things forward, but each of these steps are necessary for us to build the foundation so that people are more realistic and aggressive about how we deal with these precious resources.

Colin Sullivan: Why is that in the Senate? Why is there a different dynamic there? Is it because you have a Senator Obama lined up with a Senator Bond and that's a pretty hard coalition to break?

Earl Blumenauer: No, what's happened is in prior years we've had stronger bills come out of the Senate, but the change in lineup in the Senate, losing some environmental support, losing, frankly, some Democrats and replacing them with some conservative Republicans that were less sympathetic has tilted the situation in the Senate where it is less environmentally friendly. And as a result, the dynamic where we could have played positive things in the House and the Senate towards getting a better bill is such that that dynamic has been reversed and it's less likely that we're going to get help from the Senate this time.

Colin Sullivan: OK. We'll have to leave it at that. Thanks for coming on. Good luck with your amendment attempt.

Earl Blumenauer: Thank you.

Colin Sullivan: Join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint. Until then, I'm Colin Sullivan for E&ETV.

[End of Audio]



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