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Originally published Tuesday, June 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Froma Harrop / Syndicated columnist

Porked-up water act throws good money after bad

Louisiana is famous for — how shall we put it? — its colorful politics. And so Sen. David Vitter got an easy laugh from Washington...

Louisiana is famous for — how shall we put it? — its colorful politics. And so Sen. David Vitter got an easy laugh from Washington with the quip, "In Louisiana, we're half under water and half under indictment." At a hearing on the Water Resources Development Act, the Louisiana Republican added, "In this bill, we're beginning to address at least one of those issues."

Only one? American taxpayers are not so sure. The Senate bill raises to $1.2 billion their share of a project to preserve land in coastal Louisiana. This would be the first installment of a grand plan to restore the Mississippi Delta. Experts put the total cost at a minimum of $15 billion.

But then Vitter slipped in a last-minute provision that would endanger hundreds of thousands of forested wetland acres in Louisiana alone. It would ease the way for timber companies to cut down majestic cypress trees — part of the very ecosystem taxpayers are being asked to save — and turn them into cheap garden mulch.

The Mississippi Delta happens to be one of America's great natural wonders, right up there with the Grand Canyon, the Everglades and Chesapeake Bay. It represents 40 percent of the coastal wetlands in the contiguous United States.

But the question arises: Why spend billions fixing a resource that Louisiana politicians are busy wrecking? If inserting the Vitter provision into the water-project bill doesn't amount to an indictable offense, it certainly puts American taxpayers in a bad mood.

The amendment basically guts a key section of the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act. That section lets the Army Corps of Engineers regulate activities in navigable waters that might destroy wetlands, harm water quality or damage wildlife habitat. The Vitter provision ends those environmental protections when they apply to private property.

The Mississippi Delta is in dreadful shape. "The coastline is literally breaking up," says David Conrad, water-resources specialist for the National Wildlife Federation. "What was land is now little patches of dying vegetation."

The delta was always sinking, but the nourishing river kept the wetlands going. Then came the levees. Built for flood control, the levees cut the river off from the delta, with devastating consequences for marshlands. Oil and gas drilling made matters worse.

Strange but true, the Louisiana state Senate has just passed a resolution backing the Vitter provision. It calls on Congress to tell the Army Corps to stop picking on its forestry industry, which engages in "sustainable forestry practices."

The resolution flabbergasts John Day, professor of oceanography and coastal sciences at Louisiana State University. The cypress forests have endured, he explains, only because these trees are willing to stand in water. But their seedlings need fairly dry conditions to survive. The forest has sunk to the point where the cypresses cannot regenerate. Cut down the trees, some 100 years old, and the forest is gone.

If Louisiana's politicians want to help the forest industry, they have other ways to do it. For example, they could set up a system to compensate timber companies for trees they can't chop down.

Vitter provision aside, the whole porked-up Water Resources Development Act deserves a cold eye. The $17 billion bill finds ingenious ways to waste taxpayer money and destroy the environment at the same time.

There's the $1.8 billion plan to expand locks on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers. The problem it would solve, river congestion, could be fixed cheaply with a traffic-control system. In the Northwest, a $150 million project to deepen the Columbia River from Portland to its mouth would jeopardize recovery areas for salmon. Given the costs, its economic benefits would be meager.

With budget deficits raging, the taxpayers are going to be rather grumpy about cleaning up environmental messes that the locals make worse. Many in Louisiana are mindful of the PR dilemma.

As Day put it, "If we want to restore the Mississippi River, we in Louisiana have to show that we're going to be wise stewards of our land."

Should American taxpayers want to save the Mississippi Delta? Sure, even if it costs a bundle. But if they're just throwing good environmental money after bad, then forget about it.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

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