The Katrina Blame Game: Environmentalists Under Fire

The Hurricane Katrina fiasco has been blamed on President Bush, on poorly prepared or corrupt state and local governments, and even (by Rush Limbaugh) on a “culture of entitlement” that persuaded people they should stay in their homes and let the feds take care of them. But blaming it on environmentalists? That’s a new one.

The latest wrinkle in the blame game comes in a September 8 article from a Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) scribe that charges “environmental activist groups” (specifically American Rivers and the Sierra Club) with opposing flood protection by filing lawsuits against levee construction as an “artificial barrier to nature.”

“The groups argued that the “natural” way would lead to better river management, but it is clear they had other agendas in mind besides flood control,” says CEI Journalism Fellow John Berlau. “They were concerned because levees were allegedly threatening their beloved exotic animals and plants. In his testimony, American Rivers” [Jeffrey] Stein noted that the Mississippi River was home to “double-crested cormorant, rare orchids, and many other species, which he implied were put at risk by man-made levees.”

Berlau’s smoking gun is a claim by the Louisiana chapter of the Sierra Club that it is working to keep the Atchafalaya Basin “wet and wild.” In an interview, Berlau said that the Army Corps of Engineers had been operating with a “no net loss of wetlands” policy since the late 1980s or early 1990s. “The groups still sued, with possibly drastic consequences,” Berlau says. “For American Rivers to have a campaign called “Rivers Unplugged” shows the kind of ideologically driven campaign they had going on.”

Asked if he believes environmental groups should have any say in Army Corps projects, Berlau said, “Yes, they should have, but no greater than other citizens. The power to file lawsuits and tie up projects should be reviewed.”

The CEI article (published by National Review online) cited a 1996 case in which the aforementioned green groups sued in federal court over a planned upgrade to 303 miles of levees in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas. CEI says the suit succeeded in delaying the project for two years “while further environmental impact studies were completed.” The groups” preference for “natural” river flows can “conflict with protecting people from potential flooding,” CEI charged.

Berlau’s attack is hardly a lone shot in the dark. Joseph Towers, a retired Army Corps chief counsel, told the Los Angeles Times September 9 that New Orleans might have been spared the worst of Katrina were it not for a 1977 environmental lawsuit, Save Our Wetlands v. Rush. “My feeling was that saving human lives was more important than saving a percentage of shrimp and crab in Lake Pontchartrain,” Towers said.

These two broadsides would seem to provide a case history for Chris Mooney in his book The Republican War on Science (Basic). Mooney writes, “In political spats with environmentalists, conservatives have
learned to attack not just policies favored by environmentalists, but also the scientific information used to support those policies—which they repeatedly denounce as “junk science.” To hear the modern right tell it, you would think that environmental science, as conducted at America’s leading universities, suffers from endemic corruption on a scale reminiscent of Tammany Hall.”

The Sierra Club responded quickly. “These accusations mistake efforts to ensure good government decisions with a tragedy that had everything to do with bad judgment on the part of our government leaders,” the club said in a statement.”In each of the legal cases cited so far, conservation groups simply asked government agencies to look before leaping into projects that would have had major impacts on people and the natural systems on which they depend and to give local communities what our democracy requires: a say in projects coming out of Washington. That isn’t just common sense; that’s also the law.”

It’s worth looking at the cases in detail. In Save Our Wetlands v. Rush, the Army Corps had been directed by a federal judge in 1977 to examine the environmental impacts of a large levee project, which would have built a 25-mile-long barrier from the Mississippi border to the Mississippi River. According to the Sierra Club, the plan was opposed by Lake Pontchartrain communities and local fishermen, which advocated higher levees as an alternative. After the Army Corps declined to reevaluate its plan, Save Our Wetlands filed suit and obtained a federal judge’s injunction. The Corps was ordered to conduct a new study of the impact of its project, but it never did so.

In Mississippi River Basin Alliance, et al. v. H. Martin Lancaster, a 1996 case, the levees in questions (again, according to the Sierra Club) were 100 miles north of New Orleans and “had nothing to do with flooding.” At issue was not opposition to raising the levees, the groups said, but opposing the destruction of wetlands for construction material.

Thomas A. McGarity, president of the Center for Progressive Reform (which sponsored a Washington forum called “Katrina: An Unnatural Disaster”), calls Towers” assertions “pure fiction.” He says the Army Corps “botched the project by failing to follow the law, and then devised an alternative that has still not been fully implemented. The effort to blame environmentalists is outrageous.”

American Rivers assailed CEI’s “disingenuous efforts to influence this discussion with inflammatory, misguided and erroneous charges
.American Rivers has never sued or spoken out against improving the levees that were so tragically not up to the task of protecting New Orleans. Only a partisan with ulterior motives could review the history of development in the Mississippi River valley and fail to recognize the need for fresh thinking in the face of a growing problem.”

American Rivers” statements and reports are indeed critical of Army Corps flood-control efforts, but they’re aimed at restoring coastal wetlands and limiting development at the water’s edge so as to minimize damage from flooding. E‘s book Feeling the Heat contains a lengthy chapter about just such flood-control mitigation in the New York area (and also a chapter on the intelligent, environmentally sensitive efforts by the Dutch to limit flooding to its below-sea-level reclaimed land).

“Despite spending $100 billion on levees and dams, flood losses continue to rise,” American Rivers says in an undated (pre-Katrina) web statement that could be called prescient. “Corps levees and dams have created a false sense of security which has encouraged floodplain development.Long-term flood losses have tripled since World War II, when adjusted for inflation, to more than $4billion annually.Between 1993 and 1999, average annual flood losses exceeded $7 billion annually.During the 1960s and 1970s—when most Corps flood-control projects were constructed—floodplain development grew by nearly three percent annually.By the late 1970s, more than five million acres of floodplain land had been developed for urban use.By 1980

, more than 6,000 communities with populations of 2,500 or more had been constructed in the floodplain.Annual population growth in these areas during the 1970s was roughly twice that of the country as a whole.”

American Rivers authored a lengthy 2004 report with International Rivers Network called “Beyond Dams: Options and Alternatives.” It does indeed criticize the role of levees in a section on flood management, but it says they can actually increase flood risk by preventing peaking rivers from storing water in channels and other natural courses. The group advocates:

Controlled and temporary levee breaching to allow rivers to reconnect with their floodplains “thereby recreating the temporary flood storage function and important floodplain habitat”;
Setting back levees from rivers to provide more floodplain area to store floodwaters (and create more favorable fish and wildlife habitat in the process);
“Restoring river meanders to increase the natural capacity of the river. Letting nature take its course in this way would increase “the in-stream storage capacity and slow the downstream propagation of the flood peak, thereby decreasing downstream flood risk and the need for flood management dams,” the report said.
“Constructing bypass channels (which can be either concrete canals with limited life or nature-mimicking natural waterways that provide fish and wildlife habitat). Just such a natural bypass was constructed on California’s Yolo River in the early 1930s to convey floodwaters from the Sacramento and Feather Rivers. The Yolo River channel is critical habitat for migrating fowl, steelhead, Chinook salmon and delta smelt.

None of these prescriptions sound like they’re aimed at protecting herons at the expense of humans. Instead, they’re an argument for studying nature’s own flood defense methods, which have quite a long track record.

David Helvarg, president of the Washington-based Blue Frontier Campaign oceans group, called Berlau’s article a “red herring.” CEI, he added, “has long opposed funds for restoring wetlands and rebuilding levees.”

The Katrina lessons embraced by Blue Frontier and Congressional conservatives could not be further apart. Helvarg: “Solutions can be found among the recommendations of two major ocean commissions, a comprehensive Ocean Protection Bill introduced in June by California Senator Barbara Boxer, and in calls from both the left and the right to end our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Meanwhile, Congressman Joe Barton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, saw a hurricane “silver lining” because it might help his campaign to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Joining in such calls were Majority Leader Tom DeLay, House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici.

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E. Daniel Scollan and Jayasudha Joseph provided editorial assistance.

Berlau’s article in National Review

American Rivers

Feeling the Heat

Blue Frontier Campaign