Thank you Mr. Chairman for calling this hearing today. I am pleased that the Committee is once again taking a close look at the mission and operations of the Corps of Engineers. There is widespread agreement that we should refine the Corps’ mission and reform the way the Corps develops projects and how it implements them, to reduce costs and funnel resources where they are most needed or where they provide the greatest economic and environmental benefit to local communities and the nation. Greater transparency and accountability are also important. That said, I have always been pleased and impressed with the work of Corps professionals on the ground in Montana. I look forward to hearing from the witnesses today, and working with our Chairman and Ranking Member, and my colleagues on this committee, as we consider a Water Resources and Development bill.
Mr. Chairman, I will keep the remainder of my statement brief, but I’d like to touch on one particular issue that is of the greatest importance to my constituents in Montana – recreation. I read with great interest Mr. Woodley’s testimony where he touched upon the core purposes of the Army Corps. Recreation barely received a mention in his statement, despite the fact that the Corps is one of the largest federal providers of recreation, generating billions of dollars and thousands of jobs nationwide. I think the Corps’ perspective needs to change, just as the communities and economies that depend on Corps projects have changed over the past 50-60 years.
Recreation around Fort Peck Lake in Montana accounts for an enormous percentage of the local economy, close to 50%. The recreation economy takes on even greater significance when you consider the devastating effects of years of drought on the other major piece of the local economy – agriculture. Record low lake levels at Fort Peck Lake – levels not seen since the project was created -- have dramatically impacted this all important recreation economy. With water so low, people just don’t come to fish or boat on the Lake. When people don’t come, they don’t spend their money at local businesses. This has a ripple effect in the entire area, as local businesses dependent on recreation don’t spend as much money in their communities, or they lay off workers or don’t hire.
We’re tired of watching water levels drop at Fort Peck. I won’t go into Montana’s disappointment in the Corps’ release – finally – of a new Master Manual governing operations on the Missouri River. I know you have a very different view of that document, Mr. Chairman, but this issue is so important to us. It was incredibly disheartening to us that even minor concessions made to upper basin states like Montana in terms of better drought conservation measures for our reservoirs were weakened at the last moment to appease downstream interests. Regardless, we’re so far into this drought cycle now, that the minor concessions on drought conservation are too little, too late.
I firmly believe that one of the reasons Montana continues to take a back seat in management decisions on the Missouri River is the fact that the Corps does not consider recreation to be nearly as high a priority as more “traditional” uses of the River, for example navigation. While that may have been true 50 or 60 years ago, that is certainly not the case now. Recreation is a huge national industry, and it’s vital to communities along the Missouri River, particularly to rural communities like those in central and eastern Montana.
Mr. Chairman, I understand that during a drought there just isn’t enough water to go around and everyone has to share in the pain. My concern is that Montana has suffered far more than its fair share of pain when it comes to bearing the burden of drought at Fort Peck Lake. The rules aren’t working for us, so I think it’s time to change the rules. That’s only fair. I think it’s time for Congress to make it clear to the Corps that recreation must be given a higher priority when the Corps makes management and other decisions impacting river and reservoir use. I believe we would only be restating the obvious, but it appears that the Corps needs clear Congressional direction on this point. I will work hard in this WRDA bill to give it to them.
One final point – I agree with my colleagues that the funding constraints the Administration and the Congress have put on the Corps are counter-productive. It impacts good and bad projects indiscriminately and has led to several projects in my state coming up short on funds, even after those funds were appropriated specifically for these projects. In the case of the Fort Peck Fish Hatchery, this funding shortfall has amounted to millions of dollars. This is hard on the local project sponsors, and it’s often hard on the local communities and economies that depend on these projects. Over time, it’s going to cost us more to complete these projects than if they had been adequately funded from the start. Finding a better way to manage and fund Corps projects is an important part of restoring some sanity to the civil works budget.
Thank you again, Mr. Chairman for calling this hearing today. Again, I look forward to working with you as we explore a WRDA bill further.