Despite skepticism over Army Corps, panel approves water bill

After months of preparation, a House subcommittee unveiled an estimated $3 billion water projects bill Tuesday and sent it approvingly to its parent panel for further blessing.

Although its ultimate fate remains uncertain because of emerging differences with reform-minded senators, the long-awaited measure is likely to be approved Wednesday by the full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, then sped to the floor.

There, it is likely to face some difficult votes on promised amendments by some members who want to make honest brokers of the Army Corps of Engineers. Critics of the Corps have long contended that the agency, in cahoots with lawmakers, has edited cost-benefit analyses of water projects to allow lawmakers to demonstrate their effectiveness at home.

In the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, however, little was said about this reform effort, which was set back when the bipartisan authors of the bill blocked a faint bid to include reform language in the version that the panel finally approved by voice vote.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., noted in passing that he was partial to imposing some sense of probity on the Corps' cost-benefit analysts as they toted up the true costs and economic benefits of dams, locks, levees, channel dredging and other coveted water projects.

But it was not clear exactly what he and his allies intended to do about it, other than offering an amendment, as Blumenauer put it, to ensure the "entire costs" of such projects, including environmental damage, were calculated.

Over the decades, the Corps' detractors have accused the agency of underplaying the extent of environmental havoc and overstating the economic attributes of many projects.

The subcommittee also sidestepped another dispute that had threatened to stall the bill. In that case, two Californians-Democratic Rep. Robert Matsui and Republican Rep. John Doolittle-are at odds over a flood control project on the American River, upstream from Sacramento.

Doolittle wants to build a new dam along the watercourse; Matsui says the same flood control benefits could be achieved, somewhat more cheaply, simply by raising the height by seven feet of the existing Folsom Dam there.

The bill itself could be delayed this year because of some sentiment in the Senate for reforming the way the Corps of Engineers computes its cost-benefit analyses.

A recent series of articles in The Washington Post probed allegations that the Corps has routinely reported its numbers to favor construction of massive projects that powerful members of Congress want at public expense.

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