Reverse Corps

A dam-happy federal agency begins undoing its own legacy

Jan 8, 2001
Outside Magazine

Just add concrete; Washington State's Green River, circa 1915

"THIS IS STILL a viable river. It isn't worth throwing away, really." A few hundred yards from a Boeing factory and the truck-clogged Port of Seattle, Army Corps of Engineers biologist Patrick Cagney gazes over a stretch of the Green River. He's admiring a newly constructed side channel full of woody snags that the Corps has installed next to a meat-processing plant in a $113 million effort to "rewild" the river. Cagney hopes the calm, debris-filled channel will provide a resting area for the fall salmon run. Like many urban waterways, the Green has been carefully sculpted over the years--the river has been straightened, diked, riprapped, and made into a well-behaved, navigable ditch. In short, the life has been engineered right out of it. But this summer, a century after the river was first overhauled, the agency that brought you the Snake River dams is attempting to breathe life back into an ecosystem it spent generations subduing.

And that's just one example. Over the past two years Congress has authorized 50 restoration projects in 25 states, including funds to revive wetlands along the Ohio River and $1.4 billion to resuscitate the hydrology of the Everglades, putting the Corps, known primarily for building large-scale public-works projects, in the business of ecosystem rehabilitation. But enviros are cautious about entrusting habitat remediation to an agency often seen as an environmental bogeyman, especially after last year's debacle in which the Corps cooked its books to gain support from lawmakers for a dubious $1 billion lock-widening project on the fragile upper Mississippi River. To Melissa Samet, senior director of a Corps-reform campaign at the conservation group American Rivers, some of what the agency labels restoration is plain old engineering. Nevertheless, she hopes that with guidance the Corps can create naturally self-sustaining ecosystems: "We're making sure that what the Corps does with its restoration is real restoration."

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