WASHINGTON -- The embattled leaders of the Army Corps of Engineers have concluded that their analyses of potential water projects have eroded to "unacceptable" levels, damaging their ability to make credible recommendations to Congress.
In an unusually blunt e-mail to his fellow Corps generals, the agency's civil works director, Maj. Gen. Robert Griffin, last week announced a three-pronged effort to improve its economic and environmental planning. At a time when the agency's congressional critics are pushing for sweeping changes and its defenders are vowing to block them, Griffin wants the Corps to act on its own to beef up training, use nationally accepted economic models and create regional clusters of specialists to troubleshoot complex projects.
"In the past several years we have seen clear signs that our planning expertise and capability have declined to a point where specific action is required ... to reverse this unacceptable trend," Griffin wrote. "While pockets of excellence remain, this overall decline is beginning to have unacceptable consequences to the very foundation of the civil works program -- the basis of our investment recommendations."
The Corps civil works program has reshaped the American landscape with levees, locks and dams, as well as projects to dredge rivers, deepen harbors, replenish beaches and, in recent years, restore ecosystems like the Florida Everglades. All Corps projects must be approved by Congress. But first the projects must receive favorable recommendations from the Corps, and those recommendations have been criticized by the General Accounting Office, the National Academy of Sciences, the Office of Management and Budget and internal Pentagon investigators.
Edward Dickey, a former planning chief for the Corps, praised Griffin's recommendations but warned that congressional leaders are likely to object to any shift of power away from the agency's 41 district offices, which tend to be tight with their local members of Congress. The first Bush administration tried and got nowhere.
"There's been a tremendous erosion in capacity, and it's great they want to restore it," Dickey said. "The question is: Do they have the will to follow through?"
The agency's critics, primarily environmentalists and fiscal conservatives, suggested that Corps leaders are simply trying to stave off legislative fixes. In April, after the GAO found that the Corps had botched its analysis of a $311 million deepening of the Delaware River, Griffin announced he was suspending 150 projects for further review. But for most projects, the review only lasted three weeks; only eight are still on hold.
Jeff Ruch, the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the Corps's problem is not poorly trained planners, but leaders who force them to cook books in order to justify huge projects.
"All the training in the world won't help the Corps as long as its leaders insist that employees produce predetermined project evaluations," said Ruch, who provided Griffin's e-mail to The Post. "The fundamental weakness lies in Corps leadership, and it will take a lot more than night classes to cure that shortcoming."
The critics say that little has changed at the Corps. President Bush's budget office rejected a recent Corps analysis of beach replenishment, concluding the Corps vastly overestimated the economic benefits of its projects.
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