Congressmen Supporting Clean Water Bill Should Remember Katrina

Peyton Knight looks at Rep. James Oberstar’s Clean Water Restoration Act, and wonders why Congress doesn’t seem to have learned much from Hurricane Katrina:

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Congressman James Oberstar (D-MN) and many of his colleagues traveled to New Orleans and witnessed the destruction firsthand. They were understandably moved by the carnage wrought by a storm that killed over 1,700 people, left 80 percent of New Orleans underwater and transformed the gulf coast environment into a toxic gumbo of raw sewage, bacteria and industrial waste.

What is difficult to understand is why Rep. Oberstar and many in Congress would now champion a bill that could make it more difficult for hurricane-prone areas to protect themselves from Mother Nature’s future onslaughts.

Recall that, days after Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast, news emerged that a massive hurricane barrier project designed to protect New Orleans was deep-sixed by an environmental lawsuit that claimed the project posed a threat to wetlands.

Over 40 years ago, Congress approved the Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Barrier Project after Hurricane Betsy pummeled New Orleans. The project consisted of miles of levees and two gigantic storm gates that were designed to prevent Lake Pontchartrain from becoming overwhelmed by a massive hurricane storm surge. In the event of a hurricane, the gates would have closed off two straits that feed into the lake from the Gulf of Mexico, preventing the huge lake from swelling and burying New Orleans.

In 1976, the environmental group Save Our Wetlands sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers demanding the project be stopped because it could harm wetlands. In 1977, U.S. District Judge Charles Schwartz Jr. ruled in favor of the environmental group and stopped the barrier project.

It would never be built.

“If we had built the barriers, New Orleans would not be flooded,” said Joseph Towers, former chief counsel for the Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans district, days after Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. “My feeling was that saving human lives was more important than saving a percentage of shrimp and crab in Lake Pontchartrain. I told my staff at the time that this judge had condemned the city.”

In addition to saving lives, the project could have saved taxpayers as well. Towers said the project had an estimated cost of $85 million in 1965, or just over $560 million in 2007 dollars. By comparison, Hurricane Katrina has cost federal taxpayers over $114 billion to date.

Now, Save Our Wetlands is at it again. Just a few months ago, it announced plans to sue under the Clean Water Act, and other environmental laws, to thwart the construction of another projectdesigned to protect Louisianans from future hurricanes and also help preserve marshlands.

Even more incredibly, some in Congress are looking to give environmental litigators like Save Our Wetlands a leg up.

In the midst of another hurricane season, Rep. Oberstar and 169 of his colleagues are pushing the “Clean Water Restoration Act,” a bill that legal scholars say would encourage more wetlands lawsuits – lawsuits with the potential to thwart even more vital public works projects like those designed to protect people from hurricanes. As M. Reed Hopper, principal attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, told Congress in July, “the bill itself calls for court intervention… In effect, the Act is an abdication of the legislative role.”

The Clean Water Act has already been a catalyst for numerous, frivolous wetlands lawsuits since its inception. A LexisNexis search for “clean water act” and “lawsuit,” covering just the past two years, garners over 2,400 news stories.

As we remember the victims of Hurricane Katrina, we should also remember the preventative measures that were prescribed over 40 years ago and the reasons those measures never came to fruition. If only Congressman Oberstar and his colleagues would remember this as well.

To contact author Peyton Knight directly,
write him at [email protected]


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