Flooding Puts Corps's Strategy on the Line

Critics say federal projects have exacerbated damage

MAN versus the Mississippi.

The battle has been going on for as long as there has been settlement along the largest river in North America. For more than 100 years, the primary combatant has been the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which has spent billions of dollars to construct dams, levees, and dikes to contain the mighty river.

So how has the corps's flood-control project withstood the on-going torrential rains in the Midwest? About 120 levees have been damaged so far. Although none of the corps's levees has collapsed, many have been overrun by flood waters. And while all 27 dams and locks along the Mississippi River remain in place, they haven't prevented more than $5 billion in damage to farms and houses.

Brig. Gen. Stanley Genega, director of civil works for the Army Corps of Engineers, claims that the agency's flood-control strategy is a success. "Were it not for our levees," he states, "a good deal of downtown St. Louis would be under some water."

The corps, he adds, cannot be blamed for the damage that has occurred in the Midwest because its structures were not designed to prevent a mammoth flood. "We can't build enough to protect everybody from every possible occurrence," the general says.

Environmentalists offer a harsher assessment of the corps's strategy. "We're seeing that the flood-control strategy simply doesn't work," says Brett Hulsey of the Sierra Club in Madison, Wis. "The whole strategy exacerbates flood problems."

The corps's dams and levees, critics argue, have encouraged people to build homes and farms in flood plains. False sense of security

The corps's engineers knew that the structures couldn't stop gargantuan floods, but many developed a false sense of security while living close to powerful rivers. As settlement in flood plains increased, so has the damage caused by floods over the past 50 years, says Brent Blackwelder of Friends of the Earth.

The corps's engineering has protected some cities and towns, critics say, but it has exacerbated flooding elsewhere. Kevin Coyle, president of American Rivers, a conservation group in Washington, points out that water in levees "crests higher and moves along faster." When it overflows, the water bursts out at greater velocity than in a river without levees. The result is today's massive devastation, he says. The flood-control system, Mr. Coyle concludes, is "engineering arrogance that needs to be rethoug ht."

That rethinking has been under way for years, although it's still not complete. In 1968 Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program to shift the emphasis from building dams and levees to moving development out of the most dangerous areas. The insurance program provides coverage only in communities that adopt federal flood-plain management policies. But few towns have joined the program. Changing its approach

As part of the change in thinking, the Army Corps of Engineers has altered its approach to nature in general. The corps continues to dredge river bottoms and expand locks, but its dam-building days are winding down. Today, the agency spends $1.6 billion annually to maintain existing structures and only $1.2 billion to build new levees and dikes.

The fastest-growing part of the corps's $11 billion budget is the $1.3 billion devoted to environmental concerns, such as cleaning up toxic wastes at Army bases. In some cases, the corps is reversing environmental damage caused by its own projects. Under an agreement announced earlier this week, for example, the corps will restore wetlands that it once drained along the Kissimmee River in Florida's Everglades.

The big question is, how green is the corps? Environmentalists say the answer will come after the flood waters recede in the Midwest. The corps, under federal law, is committed to repairing dams and levees to pre-flood conditions. But will the engineers go further and build higher levees? "When it's over, we can expect a spate of legislative calls for more public works projects," says Charles Robinson, press secretary to Rep. Fred Grandy (R) of Iowa. Most wetlands lost

Environmentalists say that would be a big mistake because it would only encourage more development in flood-prone areas. The Sierra Club's Hulsey says the corps's top priority should be "aggressively protecting" wetlands. He says that Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois have experienced especially heavy flooding because those states have lost virtually all of the wetlands that once absorbed high waters.

Sitting in his Capitol Hill office after a recent trip to the Midwest, General Genega says he is sympathetic to the environmentalists' views. "I'm a big supporter of sustainable development," Genega says. But he argues that his agency cannot abandon its age-old flood-control mission. "If the Mississippi were to start on a path to wipe out New Orleans, would we let it happen?

"I'm not sure we as a society are prepared to do that. But that doesn't mean we're anti-environment."

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