Muddying the water resources bill

Any program providing flood prevention, power generation, and navigation improvements deserves objective scrutiny on economic and environmental grounds. Unfortunately, the Water Resources Development Act of 1980, which just passed the House, has instead been subjected to an onslaught of unfounded criticism likely to intensify as it moves toward enactment.

The administration has been joined in the attack by those who would cut spending regardless of the damage done -- including California's Howard Jarvis of Propostion 13 fame -- and the species of environmentalists who oppose any modification of the environment regardless of the benefits denied. Their propaganda has been flooding the press and Congress to be point where a press release from "environmental" opponents of one project turned up in the Congressional Record as a floor statement by a member fighting the bill.

The real issue: The administration seeks to wrest authority over water resource policy from Congress and would hold the entire program hostage until it gains de facto veto power over individual projects. Those not vetoed would undergo extra bureaucratic review, increasing their cost, stretching out their completion, and delaying the realization of their benefits. In the case of flood control projects, for example, hazard to life and property would be needlessly prolonged.

Do we really want to give anym administration the ability to favor one area or region over another in dispensing projects crucial to their well-being?

Thus the administration opposes projects on cost, policy, and procedural grounds, with environmentalists out front with propaganda on enviromental and economic grounds. Examples of distortion:

Cost. While the bill is portrayed as a $4 billion-plus budget-buster, its real cost is far less. It authorizes more than $4.4 billion but de-authorizes the controversial $1.3 billion Dickey-Lincoln hydroelectric project in Maine, reducing its net cost accordingly. The price tag includes a factor for inflation in future years, bringing its cost in today's dollars closer to $2 billion. In addition, costs of water supply projects in the bill must be fully repaid with interest, returning more than a half-billion dollars to the Treasury.

Inflation. The bill is damned as inflationary. But because projects take a dozen or more years to plan, design, and construct, the pay-out will be distributed over years in the future, minimizing the spending impact in any single year and occurring at a rate the construction industry can absorb without undue pressure on wages and prices.

Benefits. The bill is attacked as an exercise in bringing home the bacon to members' districts in the form of worthless projects. The Appropriations Committee, which actually provides the funds authorized for the program, last year examined cumulative expenditures totalling $10.3 billion for flood control and identified benefits totalling $76.8 billion in total value of flood damage prevented. It found that $13 billion spent over a century and a half on waterway transportation had produced total benefits of $59.9 billion.

This year's bill contains some 200 projects, the overwhelming majority of which will produce benefits exceeding cost, in some cases by a factor of three or four.

Environment. Consider one example in which the "environmentalist" Coalition for Water Project Review highlighted a navigation project on the Ohio River in one of a series of press releases dubbed "Profiles in Pork." Profiles in propaganda is a better term. The coalition invented a new high dam as a basis for attacking the project, which in reality involves only a lock replacement. It claimed massive erosion damage on the river due to past projects, as claim found baseless in a recent federal court case on that very point.And it claimed severe deterioration of the river's water quality, which has actually improved during recent decades of navigation improvements.

No bill is perfect, nor is our national water policy. We will come up with a better product when the adminsitration stops trying to impose its views unilaterally and works with Congress. And the environmentalists will improve their influence when they exhibit greater regard for their credibility.

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