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GAO to Army Corps: Make climate resilience a core value

February 16, 2024   Politico Pro

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Federal investigators on Thursday recommended a set of sweeping reforms to the Army Corps of Engineers' flood control programs to better prepare U.S. communities from worsening climate impacts.


In a 105-page report, the Government Accountability Office identified 14 options for the Army Corps to respond more effectively to flood disasters that are becoming more frequent and destructive.


Top of the list was GAO’s suggestion that the Army Corps incorporate climate resilience into its everyday operations.


The benefits of that approach would be increased "oversight and accountability" of climate fortification efforts, according to the report. But the GAO warned this step would not be effective "without dedicated climate resilience staff with expertise at all agency levels."


The Army Corps, through its civil works division, is the primary federal agency responsible for flood protection along the nation’s coasts and rivers. Since 2014, the agency has dedicated at least $19 billion in annual appropriations to flood risk management activities, according to GAO, and more than $46 billion for emergency flood disaster response.


Some of the Army Corps' flood control projects are massive in scope, including the design and construction of dams, levees, flood walls and pumping networks to keep communities dry.


In recent years, the Army Corps has proposed even bigger projects, such as storm surge barriers that would ring coastal cities like New York, Miami and Charleston, South Carolina. Those projects would require hundreds of billions of dollars in additional taxpayer investment, experts say.


In an email, Army Corps spokesperson Doug Garman said the agency “is committed to integrating climate change preparedness and resilience … to ensure community resilience with our water resources projects.”


GAO acknowledged that each of its 14 recommendations “has strengths and limitations” but concluded “that implementing multiple options could leverage their strengths and address their limitations and offers the greatest potential to enhance the climate resilience of federally funded flood risk management infrastructure.”


In addition to achieving better institutional control over flood control planning and spending, GAO said the Army Corps should better integrate climate resilience into mandatory cost-benefit analyses for future projects, expand its use of “adaptive management solutions” and prioritize flood protection projects that account for climate resilience.


The White House on Thursday proposed a new rule that would require the Army Corps to execute some of the same ideas outlined in the GAO report, including a requirement that major flood-protection projects integrate climate resilience measures. The rule is subject to a 60-day public review and comment period.


GAO’s report went beyond future project planning. It also called on the Army Corps to “conduct climate vulnerability assessments of existing [flood-control] infrastructure” and “establish process for retrofitting existing infrastructure to account for climate change.”


It also makes clear that the Army Corps needs to better balance flood control projects’ benefits with rising costs and shifting climate conditions.


“Selecting the appropriate mix of options to best reduce the fiscal risks to the federal government is a policy choice that requires complex trade-offs,” investigators said. “These trade-offs should be made with full information about the strengths and limitations of different options.”


Garman, the Army Corps spokesperson, said the agency evaluates climate impacts “by integrating the most actionable climate information into its missions, programs, and management functions, as allowed within relevant authorities.”


Melissa Samet, legal director for water resources and coasts at the National Wildlife Federation, said the findings “reflect what many of us have been saying for years.” But she noted the report distills the recommendations into simple, unambiguous language that can be easily understood by Congress, which holds the agency’s purse strings.


“We’d love to see this report be a catalyst for the culture change that needs to be happening at the Corps,” Samet said in an interview.