Constituent policy

Congress pushes climate policy through Army Corps of Engineers

Even as President Biden’s climate change bill languishes in the Senate, Congress is poised to spend billions of dollars on ambitious new projects that would help the United States adapt to climate change. A bill that would authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to build infrastructure to protect against climate impacts is quietly sailing through Congress, demonstrating bipartisan support for measures to protect against flooding and sea level rise Lawmakers may not be willing to pass laws that will drastically reduce carbon emissions, but they seem eager to fund projects that will lessen the damage caused by those emissions.

Established in the 19th century, the Corps is a public works authority tasked with protecting the nation’s rivers and beaches from flooding and erosion. He has a mixed record on both the facade: Its levees have sometimes failed disastrously in storms like Hurricane Katrina, and its erosion control projects have often failed to slow the disappearance of beaches. To set the agency’s agenda, Congress reauthorizes a law called the Water Resources Development Act each legislative session. Usually this is simply a matter of giving him money for various river control projects and allowing him to conduct studies on the viability of future projects.

This year’s bill, however, seeks to give the Army Corps of Engineers a bigger role in responding to the effects of climate change, even if it doesn’t name them as such. The legislation will authorize funding for several massive projects in parts of the country hardest hit by climate change, and will also expand the range of issues the agency can tackle to include coastal resilience and drought. The bill was unanimously approved by a Senate committee last week, and the House of Representatives will soon draft its own version.

Flagship projects in the new bill aim to protect communities along the Gulf of Mexico from storm surges and flooding. Hurricanes and tropical cyclones have become stronger and more destructive as the oceans have warmed, and rapid sea level rise has made flooding more frequent all along the coast. Congress’ decision to address these threats amounts to a tacit admission that climate change has increased the danger.

The centerpiece of the bill is a $19 billion allocation for the “Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration” project, better known as “Ike Dike.” This long-awaited initiative aims to protect Houston from devastating storm surges by building a massive seawall system along Galveston Bay. the centerpiece of the system would be a set of 15 interlocking doors, the largest 22 feet high, that could close in the event of a hurricane. This would prevent storm surges from crossing the shipping channel and reaching Houston, as has happened during Hurricane Ike in 2008. The project would be one of the largest ever undertaken by the Corps, and it accounts for well over half of the bill’s overall expenditures.

The bill also includes funding for another massive levee structure in Louisiana. The Billion Dollars Upper Barataria Basin Project would span 30 miles and seven parishes, bringing a new level of storm surge protection to the section of Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley”. Last year’s Hurricane Ida caused devastating flooding in many of these same areas, topping minor levees in cities like LaPlace, but the widened levees should protect them from all but the largest storms. These levees have become all the more necessary as coastal erosion has erased much of Louisiana’s marshes, which previously served as natural barrier against floods.

About $1 billion will head to the Florida Keys, where the Corps can use it to raise nearly 5,000 houses along the archipelago of islands, where the sea level has risen about four inches since the turn of the century. The agency considered spending the money on home buyouts, but ultimately decided on buyouts would not be profitable in the Keys. Elsewhere in the country, however, the Corps sought to buy back hundreds of homes, even telling some localities that it wanted them use eminent domain force people out of vulnerable areas.

In addition, the bill authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers to play a greater role in combating climate change-related phenomena such as drought and coastal erosion. The agency is already spending a lot of money on jetties and seawalls to curb erosion in places like Rockaway Beach in New Yorkbut lawmakers are now demanding that Corps projects “must be formulated to increase the resilience of these shores[lines] and [river]banks from the adverse effects of extreme weather events and other factors.

Rather than simply dumping new sand on an eroded beach, the Corps will need to consider how to make that beach more resilient to future erosion, for example by installing so-called living shorelines. The bill also allows the Corps to undertake drought response efforts in the West, a provision guaranteed by Senator Mark Kelly of Arizonawhose state is experiencing an unprecedented drought, exacerbated by climate change.

These new responsibilities fall outside the historic mandate of the Army Corps of Engineers, indicating lawmakers want to turn the agency into something of a Swiss army knife for climate adaptation. The notion of a civilian climate body may be dead, but the non-civilian body bears a bigger burden than ever when it comes to federal climate policy. Something similar is happening at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where lawmakers have allocated billions of dollars for climate resilience and redemptions.

Yet even the biggest bills of the new Water Resources Development Act are little more than band-aids in the context of the country’s vulnerability to floods and fires, and the bill does nothing to reduce the carbon emissions that increase this vulnerability. Nonetheless, the bill shows that climate adaptation remains acceptable even to Republican politicians who cater to conservative voters. These politicians may not want to subsidize clean energy or reduce the use of fossil fuels, but they have a vested interest in doling out money for big capital projects in their states and showing their constituents that they help make them safer.