Privatize the Army Corps of Engineers

Jan. 12, 2006
Jimmy Carter was the last U.S. President to hold an engineering degree.

Perhaps that is one reason he felt the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had a lot of ideas that were wasteful. Back in 1977, Carter came up with a list of Corps water projects he thought were economically silly and should be scrapped.

Politics eventually derailed Carter's push to kill off efforts with poor paybacks. Presidents since Carter have come to many of the same conclusions about Corps projects but have had about the same luck reining them in. The Corps of Engineers continues to be a notorious outlet for pork-barrel spending.

The saga of Corps water projects would be just another case of inefficient government if it were not for the failure of levees in New Orleans during Katrina. The Corps botched the levee system design, at least according to a group of expert investigators called Team Louisiana. The Corps design standard for the New Orleans levees is 130% of the strength needed to withstand Category 3 hurricanes. But Team Louisiana calculations suggest the 17th Street Canal levee was only built with 93 to 98% of that strength near the breached area.

Levee failure wasn't just a technical screw up. It was also a failure of oversight by Louisiana politicians. They just assumed the levees were Washington's responsibility. So they were complacent about whether the barriers would do what they were supposed to do when it counted.

There is a way to avoid this "what-me-worry" attitude and to stop Congress from approving boondoggle water projects based on political pull: Privatize the Corps. Dredging, beach replenishment, and hydroelectric dams would have to make economic sense based on user fees and revenues. Local governments would contract private firms for levees, municipal water and sewer projects, and waterway infrastructure. They would have to convince their own residents that such projects were worth paying for.

In this scenario, the result would be a more perceptive caliber of oversight than what happens in Corps projects now.

Newspapers credited a Team Louisiana expert with this comment about whether, in hindsight, the failed levees had gotten enough attention: "The design and construction (of the levee system) is a process that is overseen by federal people at every step."

No doubt true, but those "federal people" were not the ones who would be under 10 feet of water if worse came to worst.

Magazines strive for a contemporary graphic design that makes things easy for their readers. That's why this issue of MACHINE DESIGN looks a little different than what you've been used to. We've updated our fonts for a crisper, cleaner presentation. A bolder, simpler typeface and larger images are framed by more white space to let you, the reader, get a better look at the technical content. Simultaneously, we've forged closer links between our printed magazine and our online presence. MACHINE DESIGN editors now all maintain their own blogs where readers can talk back, kibitz, and respond to magazine content. All in all, we hope our new look will help busy readers glean information from the magazine more quickly.

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