Water Resources Development

In the last 30 years, changing values, political shifts, and economic constraints have resulted in major alterations in the Corps' water resources program. Beginning in the 1960s, an increasingly urbanized, educated society focused more on recreation, environmental preservation, and water quality than on irrigation, navigation, or flood control. Passage of the Wilderness Act (1964), the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968), and the National Environmental Policy Act (1969) testified to the strength of these new interests.

The focus on the environmental consequences of natural resource exploitation contributed to rising opposition to water projects. The Corps of Engineers, the nation's largest water resources developer, received the brunt of the criticism. However, the public was suspicious not just about the Corps, but about government in general. According to one survey, the number of people who believed that "government is run by people who don't know what they're doing" climbed from 27 percent in the early 1960s to 63 percent in 1980. In short, both a lack of confidence in government and concerns about the environment generated opposition to water projects.

Another problem was the federal budget. Beginning with the post World War II construction boom, an increasing number of people questioned the amount of federal dollars spent on water resources projects. There were several reasons for this. First, operating and maintaining water projects had become at least as demanding as building them, and nonfederal interests could often make important contributions in this regard. Second, to some observers an increasing number of projects appeared to be strictly for local benefit, in which case it was entirely appropriate that the local beneficiaries pay for more of the cost. Finally, and most important, other demands on the federal budget made it necessary to search for ways to reduce federal expenditures. Discretionary programs, such as water resources, became one way of showing fiscal restraint in the face of demands for increased expenditures for the military (especially during Vietnam) and of legislative reluctance to tamper with entitlement programs.

However, the need for rehabilitating or replacing an aging water resources infrastructure was undeniable by the mid 1970s. There were approximately 3,000 unsafe dams in the country, and a number of locks on major navigable rivers were too old (about 40 years), deteriorated, and small to serve modern shipping. Both new locks and deeper ports were needed. With increasing demands on the federal budget and growing doubts about the wisdom of some expensive water projects, a way had to be found to eliminate doubtful projects while responding to legitimate water resource needs in an equitable and efficient manner. The situation required innovation and a willingness to challenge and, if necessary, change old ways of doing business.

The eventual result was passage of the Water Resources Development Act of 1986, more simply called WRDA 86 (P.L. 99-662). This law signified a major and probably enduring shift in the nation's attitude towards water resources planning. The legislation reflected general agreement that nonfederal interests can, and should, shoulder more of the financial and management burdens, that environmental considerations were intrinsic to water resources planning, and that marginal projects must be weeded out. The law authorized about $16.23 billion in spending for water projects, of which the federal government will pay approximately $12 billion, and nonfederal interests, such as states, port authorities, commercial navigation companies, and communities, the remainder. Precisely 377 new Corps of Engineers' water projects were authorized for construction or study.

Though the number of projects and studies authorized in WRDA 86 was significant, of potentially more impact were the policy changes which the act introduced. Together, they substantially modified approaches to financing and planning water developments that had evolved over the last half century. Revisions in cost-sharing requirements, the imposition of ad valorem cargo taxes to maintain harbors, increases in fuel barge taxes to support inland lock and dam projects, and various other reforms will result in greater participation by ports, communities, waterway interests, and states in both financing and designing water projects. Many of these reforms were hardly revolutionary. Indeed, in putting more initiative into the hands of nonfederal interests, the act is profoundly conservative, for it restored a relationship that existed over a century ago.

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