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May 2006 Ask the Angry Citizen

The following was submitted by a current Corps of Engineer employee:

Dear Angry Citizen, 

I work for a Federal Agency that has been the subject of your wrath in recent times.  I would just like to say that it is hard and confusing to work with for the Corps of Engineers and make everyone happy.  I could elaborate but the following testimony before Congress says it so well.  Just substitute Skagit River for Missouri River:

Angry Citizen Note:  The below testimony of General Fastabend was shortened for space requirements however the general gist of his comments are kept in tack.  Deleted sections are indicated by . . .

Testimony of Northwest Division Commander Brigadier General David Fastabend before Congressional Committee, July 2002.

As Commander of the Northwestern Division of the Corps of Engineers, I have been dealing with Missouri River Basin issues for approximately 11 months.   . . . 

With our responsibilities to manage the Nation's inland waterways infrastructure, the Corps of Engineers is placed squarely in the middle of a wide range of multiple, divergent stakeholders. When you combine that role with the Army's ethic of selfless service to the Nation, then you get an agency that is famous - at times infamous - for its stoic, silent endurance under criticism.

Some people claim ...

... that the Corps cares only about navigation
... or that the Corps cares only about flood control
... or that the Corps cares only about hydropower.

Those people are wrong. The Corps does care only about one thing. But that one thing is not navigation, nor is it flood control, nor is it hydropower. The Corps cares only about executing the will of the American people, as expressed by their elected representatives here in Congress, as directed by the National Command Authorities, and as sanctioned by the courts.

That sounds simple ... but the challenge is that the people of the United States have - over time - told us to do many, many things. In the 1930s and the 1940s the American people told us to build, operate and maintain the Missouri River mainstem system for multiple project purposes. Since that original mission, the American people have given us additional instructions. In the 1970s they gave us the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. In the 1980s they gave us the National Historic Preservation Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. These additional instructions were given long after the mainstem system was already designed and built. And my peer agencies, carefully doing their jobs, have executed their mission and given us findings with respect to these laws, most notably the listing of Interior Least Terns, the Piping Plover, and the Pallid Sturgeon.

As you can well imagine, no one was able to "deconflict" the multiple instructions given to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Our guidance is sometimes contradictory and the resolution of those contradictions is extremely problematic. I particularly welcome this hearing, here in the halls of Congress where the instructions of the American people originate, so that you can hear first hand the nature of the challenges we face.

On the banks of the Missouri River yesterday someone asked my how it feels to be a "human piñata." It feels a lot better than you might think. In the Corps of Engineers we are extremely proud of our role in applying the best possible science and engineering judgment in order to balance the multiple purposes of these projects, while complying with environmental law and meeting our trust and treaty obligations to federally recognized tribes.

In the Army we talk about the honor of being on point. The point position is clearly the most dangerous and it is typically given to the most competent and trusted soldier in the formation. It is a position of honor. The Northwestern Division is on point in the Missouri River basin. The integrity and competence of my organization in filling this position of honor is second to none. I thank you for this opportunity to join you today, and I look forward to your questions.

We at the Corps are trying but it's not an easy task.

Sincerely,

A dedicated public servant and Corps of Engineers employee

I applaud and thank you for your service to your country.  After 30 years of working with federal, state and local governments all around the Pacific Northwest, I know from personal experience that there are many dedicated public servants and many of them work at the Corps of Engineers.  Those individuals like yourself I hope continue to serve in a competent and honorable manner.  However, having said that, the problem as I see it is that the Corps of Engineers as a governmental agency as with a lot of agencies has lost the trust of the American people.  With scandal after scandal involving everything from falsifying figures to justify government flood projects, to the Halliburton contracts in Iraq, generals retiring only to take jobs as lobbyist for government contracts from the Corps, the USFWS junk science in the South regarding the Florida panther, the Corps terrible handling of contracts regarding Katrina victims not to mention the building of the levees in New Orleans, to FEMA (need I say more).

On a local level the Seattle District Corps has produced project managers that publicly chastise local residents for questioning or challenging the  “best possible science and engineering judgment” which has had the effect of turning ardent Corps supporters into Angry Citizens.  Since at least July 30, 2003 the Seattle District seems to take the public approach that it is “their way or the highway” and there is no room for compromise even when the “best possible science and engineering judgment”  is based on 1923 “estimates” that are nothing more then highly questionable at best, not to mention having been rejected by the Corps as early as 1924, one year after the “estimates” were submitted (See Notice and Minutes of Public Hearing In Connection With Preliminary Examination of "Skagit River, Washington, With A View To The Control Of Its Floods" Directed By Flood Control Act of May 31, 1924.)  One other item, having your work product evaluated by your own agency and not submitting all the information available for the evaluation is hardly an independent review. 

Take the dam storage issue behind the Baker River dams for instance.  This has got to be the biggest “no brainier” approach to flood control there is.  Why has the Corps not supported this concept with vigor?  Why does it take years to produce preliminary analysis that the Corps already did in 1967?  Why did the Corps not make public the 1967 analysis in 1967 instead of misleading local government flood control committees into believing that “no more storage was available behind any of the dams”  (See Corps Memorandum re Lower Baker River Storage Projects and Corps Memorandum re Preliminary Report on Baker River Regulation)

If the Corps of Engineers is truly interested and committed to  “executing the will of the American people” it has to start with listening to and respecting the will of local governments.  Its all about trust, respect, competency, efficiency and commitment to excellence.     No one ever said your job was going to be easy.

NOTE:  Subsequent to answering the Corps employee the Washington Post published the following article and with permission from the journalist who wrote it I have provided a link here http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/13/AR2006051300037.html.  This article I think expresses the sentiment of the American public and validates my concerns above.

The Angry Citizen