Decades of progress by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in flood control and navigation in the lower Mississippi River Valley are threatened with “being decimated or eliminated” due to federal budget cuts, the president of Mississippi’s Delta Council says.

“As Congress and the White House entertain the talking heads on Fox News, major highway construction legislation, water resource developments for the transport of commerce in this nation … will be cracking around its foundation,” Cass Pennington told the Mississippi River Commission at its public hearing at Greenville, Miss.

The commission, in a series of public hearings at ports along the Mississippi River, presented details of how proposed cuts to the Corps of Engineers budget could adversely impact transport of goods — including a large percentage of the nation’s grains shipped into export — on the big river, its tributaries, and lakes that are under the Corps’ purview.

While the 112th Congress went to Washington in January with a strong message from the November 2010 elections that spending reform and fiscal responsibility were top priorities, Pennington said “We never once heard media reports indicating that the public was telling Congress to drastically cut our nation’s commitment to maintenance or construction of infrastructure improvements throughout the U.S.”

It is “appalling,” he said, “that instead of including all defense and entitlement spending as a part of its effort to reduce the deficit, Congress has essentially chosen to identify a small percentage of the federal government’s discretionary accounts, and has either drastically reduced or eliminated them.”

Flood control and navigation in the lower Mississippi River Valley, and virtually all of the previously authorized features of the Mississippi Rivers and Tributaries Act, “are being decimated,” Pennington said.

“Rather than talking about the accomplishments of the Corps of Engineers in establishing a new ‘gold standard’ for achieving higher water quality through a channel enlargement project on Steele Bayou in Mississippi, we are saddened to report that the continued progress of the Corps in improving water quality on major tributaries of the Mississippi River is being eliminated due to the political rhetoric surrounding the elimination of congressional directives.”

Those directives, Pennington noted, constitute only seven-tenths of one percent of the federal budget, “and they are never in addition to or over budget allocations — rather, they are within and under the approved budget.”

It is Delta Council’s view, he said, that congressionally-authorized activities that are major pieces of a comprehensive plan for flood protection and environmental restoration in a balanced approach “do not represent the type of deficit reduction many people envisioned when they went to the polls last November.

Not a viable solution

“We have not spoken with a single congressional office since November that believes the elimination or drastic reduction in projects that constitute less than seven-tenths of one percent of the federal budget represents a viable method for addressing the nation’s $1.9 trillion annual budget deficit.

“Instead of crippling our nation’s infrastructure improvements — including highways, navigation, port development, flood protection, and ecosystems restoration — the people in our region are telling us that all federal spending should be considered for the purposes of deficit reduction, not just those congressionally authorized projects that constitute less than seven-tenths of one percent of the nation’s total federal outlays.”

And he said, “the pressing need to have a new generation of competitively-educated young people move into our society” will be crippled by proposed drastic cuts in the Pell grant programs for higher education, “which have enabled a large percentage of our rural population to attend two-year and four-year colleges.”

Eighty-five percent of all federal spending is for defense and entitlement outlays, Pennington noted.

“If these two budget items do not proportionally participate in deficit reduction, it is our view that the ongoing congressional debate about deficit reduction is disingenuous.”

The Delta Council, Pennington said, “continues to support all of the previously authorized flood control, navigation, and port development activities” of the Corps, and expressed gratitude for “the positive work performed by the Corps in the Mississippi Delta over the past 75 years.”

The nation has a $13.6 billion investment in projects on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, said Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, who commands the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division and serves as president of the Mississippi River Commission.

Walsh, whose previous service was in Iraq, is responsible for $7.5 billion in civil works programs and plays a vital role in managing the Corps’ water resources program in the Mississippi Valley Division.

Estimates are, Walsh said, that investments in Corps flood control projects, including 3,486 miles of levees in place, have prevented $370 billion in property loss and damage, with some 4 million people protected.

“This represents a 27-to-1 return on the money invested.”

Federal budget appropriations for the Corps have averaged about $300 million per year, Walsh noted. In fiscal 2011, that was cut to $240 million and the fiscal 2012 budget is pegged for further cuts to $210 million.

Four major program elements

The Mississippi River Commission is charged with carrying out the comprehensive river management program known as the Mississippi River and Tributaries (MR&T) project, which was authorized through the Flood Control Act of 1928. The four major elements of the MR&T project are levees for containing flood flows; floodways for the passage of excess flows past critical reaches of the Mississippi River; channel improvement and stabilization to provide an efficient and reliable navigation channel, increase the flood-carrying capacity of the river, and protect the levee system; and tributary basin improvements for major drainage basins to include dams and reservoirs, pumping plants, auxiliary channels and pumping stations.

The MR&T project is the largest flood control project in the world, providing protection to the 36,000 square-mile lower Mississippi Valley.

“It represents one of mankind’s most successful civil works projects and one of the wisest investments,” Walsh said.

Nearing completion — with a June 1 schedule date — is the hurricane risk reduction system at New Orleans.

“This $14.5 billion project has been our No. 1 priority,” he said, “and represents the largest civil works project in the Corps’ history. It involves over 300 contracts and includes the world’s largest pumping system. It represents world class work.”

Rear Adm. Jonathan Bailey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a commission member, said the hearings have produced “collectively dramatic testimony” as to the value of the Mississippi River and its tributary system to the nation’s commerce.

“With a $14 trillion national deficit, I think everyone feels something needs to be done. But I don’t think everyone realizes how dramatic are the cuts being proposed and the reality of how it will affect businesses, services, and the economy if these facilities can’t be properly maintained, or if some of them have to be shut down.”

The public needs to be reminded, Col. Walsh said, “that the U.S. is a maritime nation, and this system is important to the nation’s economy and security. Even though our nation is in a post-affluent era, facing serious fiscal constraints and much public pessimism, we have to figure ways to recapitalize and move forward.”

Sam Angel, commission member from Lake Village, Ark., said Congress’ rush to accede to public demands to eliminate spending “earmarks” has hampered ongoing support for many infrastructure programs.

“Earmarks could’ve cured a lot of the problems we’ve heard about,” he said. “We’ve got to keep this river system funded and operating. We don’t want to have to start shutting down vital facilities.”