OPENING STATEMENT BY SENATOR VITTER
Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Hearing on Water Resources Needs and the President’s Budget Proposal
Thursday, March 15, 2007
Chairman Baucus, Ranking Member Isakson, thank you for hosting this important hearing on the Fiscal Year 2008 budget request and the authorization needs of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Water Resources Development Act.
Two immediate concerns I have are in regard to the budgetary process and mismanagement related to the recovery work in New Orleans.
First, I am beginning to realize that former Congressman and Assistant Secretary of the Army Mike Parker was a hero. Congressman Parker was forthright and honest about the budgetary constraints and budgetary process forced upon the Corps.
Nearly eight months ago, I began receiving reports about the funding shortfalls related to the restoration of the hurricane protection systems in the New Orleans area.
I identified over $4 billion in additional funding needs to restore our hurricane and flood protection system to authorized levels. However, the recent budget request sent to Congress proposed to reallocate $1.3 billion in existing funds from emergency work in New Orleans.
The request proposes no new funding for this emergency work. With hurricane forecasters predicting another active year, this is decision is beyond ill-advised.
Second, recent news reports about faulty pumps installed at the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans only confirms the concerns I expressed last summer regarding the capabilities of the pumping stations on the canal. These concerns were repeatedly deemed unfounded by the Corps. Now we are expected to rely upon these same faulty pumps and the pump manufacturer for flood protection in 2007. I understand that the Corps has expended millions of extra dollars attempting to resolve this problem, but I remain very concerned about the command's ability to meet its targets for this hurricane season.
While I am confident that I could be here for hours going over other serious concerns about the water resources program – from OMB to the Army to the Corps’ civil works program – I’ll take a moment to focus on Corps reform.
In developing my thoughts for this topic, I remembered the wisdom of Yogi Berra. He once said "the future ain’t what it used to be". In regard to the Corps of Engineers, I am hopeful that we can prove Yogi right. The future of the civil works program must not reflect the mistakes of the past.
We learned some incredibly painful lessons as a result of Hurricane Katrina. It took the loss of over 1200 lives to bring attention to the concerns we have voiced in Louisiana regarding the integrity and performance of our hurricane protection system. We must apply these lessons not only to our recovery efforts in Louisiana, but to our protection systems and water resource projects nationwide.
I commend General Strock here today for coming forward and admitting that the Corps erred in New Orleans. I know that that wasn’t an easy statement on your part, but it was the right thing to do and a courageous act. Thank you. I am confident that your efforts will help guide us in preventing future disasters and the loss of life.
Every member of this panel has voiced support for some variation of Corps reform. The devil is in the details and the details should not delay the passage of WRDA again. Seven years since enacting a WRDA bill is far too long.
Hundreds of Members of Congress and interests groups across the country have proposed various forms of Corps reform. Unfortunately, a number of these proposals are not truly based upon experience with Corps projects. As a representative of the 1200 citizens that lost their lives during Hurricane Katrina and a representative of the state with the most intense civil works program in the world, I ask that you rely heavily upon the experiences of our state.
There are FOUR essential principles that must be included in any version of Corps reform:
Independence: We must ensure that the peer review teams bring independent expertise to the table. Not because we do not trust the federal engineers, but because the consequences of failure are far too great to rest upon the shoulders of any one engineer or agency. We also must reach out to all expertise that is available.
Consistency: The application of peer review criteria to all Corps projects must be consistent. Each team must have a clear, consistent understanding of their role, the engineering standards, their goals and the purpose of water resource projects.
Integration: In the case of Louisiana, I have called for one peer review entity, known as the Louisiana Water Resources Council, to serve as the exclusive peer review team for all projects in our disaster areas of south Louisiana. The IPET, National Science Foundation, American Society of Civil Engineers and other Hurricane Katrina expert review teams all identified the inter-performance of projects as key issue in the New Orleans area systems.
One peer review entity with a clear understanding of all projects in a region will be able to comprehend the impact of related projects and verify the integration of protection infrastructure to ensure that it truly operates as a system. I thank the Committee and conferees for agreeing to this concept in last year’s WRDA bill and in the conference committee. I understand that the House recently adopted my proposal in their version of WRDA recently introduced.
I urge you to consider this concept in other areas as well.
Efficiency and Timeliness: In working on projects in Louisiana for years, there are two descriptions that are included in any local sponsor’s comments on a Corps project. 1) It takes too long; and 2) It is too expensive.
We must ensure that any Corps reform requirements occurs concurrent with design – without delay to the final recommendations or extraordinary expense. Water resource projects are designed to save lives. We cannot afford delays.
In closing, I’d like to reemphasize the importance of getting this WRDA bill done as soon as possible. There are dozens and dozens of vital projects across this country that cannot wait any longer.
I have heard some theorize that WRDA has been delayed for budgetary reasons. I would like to remind the members here today that Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma have cost our taxpayers nearly $160 billion and counting. Less than $5 billion would have prevented virtually all damages in New Orleans.
A recent study commissioned by FEMA found that every one dollar in mitigation measures provides four dollars in benefits. If you are concerned about the budget as I am, it is clear that we must enact WRDA now.
For years I have complained about the lengthy Corps of Engineers' process. With seven years since enacting a WRDA bill, some obstacles in the Congress are no better.