In his stirring inaugural address, President Barack Obama clearly articulated the great challenge of our time.
"It's not the size of government but whether our government works for the people .... whether it helps families find jobs ... the state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift ... not only to create jobs, but to lay a foundation for growth ... where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end."
When we apply the president's standard to the leadership of the Army Corps of Engineers in the bungled rehabilitation of Wolf Creek Dam and the response to the economic crisis it created; the answer is a resounding "No."
Unlike the other disasters that have involved the Corps — Katrina, Lake Lanier or recent flooding — the emergency lowering of Lake Cumberland was a man-made disaster like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. While some disasters are acts of God, the disasters in the gulf and Cumberland were the result of engineering failures. In the case of Cumberland, the disaster was an act of government.
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Faulty design of the dam led to failure mode just 16 years after its completion. Mistakes in judgment caused the Corps to ignore the engineering peer group advice and reduce the size and depth of the first cut-off wall by two-thirds. The two most critical areas today are at the ends of that reduced wall.
Lax monitoring caused the Corps to misjudge problems with the dam. In 1979, following completion of the reduced wall, 300 piezometers, inclinometers and settlement plates were installed to monitor the dam.
When the Corps initiated the emergency drawdown in January, 2007, only 150 piezometers were active. The Corps said it retired half of those instruments "due to lack of changes in the reading, being damaged or otherwise rendered unusable."
The 1965 Recreation Act made recreation a full project purpose for the Corps on Lake Cumberland. Recreation means tourism and it's critical to our jobs and economy. It's Kentucky's third-largest industry. Obama during his campaign and again on 60 Minutes pointed out good leaders must be able to manage several important tasks simultaneously.
The Corps' leadership is tasked to manage several missions or full project purposes simultaneously on Lake Cumberland, including recreation. If it can't, or more accurately in this case, won't properly manage all of its full project purposes simultaneously, then the leadership needs to be changed.
The Army Corps, primarily a civilian bureaucracy with 600 military uniformed officers, added 3,000 jobs last year and is on its way to 39,000 total employees earning an average salary of $56,000, while our struggling citizens in the region average $30,350 per household with an average unemployment rate of 11.83 percent — 3 percent higher than the national average.
The Corps executed $35 billion worth of projects last year and is scheduled to execute $38 billion this year. The same government agency spending billions to assist the economies of Iraq and Afghanistan recover have done nothing to address the economic disaster it has created in our own backyard.
Worse, this economic disaster is now becoming a nightmare for taxpayers. In 2007, the Corps estimated the rehabilitation cost at $300 million and then at $600 million the next year. After four years, the Corps is preparing to announce another cost estimate and a new completion date of December 2013. It is seeking more money for the very recreation mission it ignores today under auspices of the Great American Outdoors Initiative.
The five local governments surrounding Lake Cumberland and both houses of the Kentucky General Assembly have collectively passed 15 resolutions and have received no response, much less assistance from the Corps.
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear appointed a workgroup of the affected parties and developed an economic recovery plan. Republican Senate President David Williams and Democratic Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo have personally introduced resolutions and signed a joint letter to Obama. All have been ignored.
One can only surmise that the Corps' lack of response is truly bipartisan.
The last resolutions we passed in 2010 ask two very important questions: Are we to hold the private sector to a higher standard than our own federal government?
Have our federal agencies become so large, so bureaucratic and so insular they no longer respond to our representatives and can simply ignore those suffering from a regional economic disaster that the Corps created?
Given the attitude of a responsive federal government articulated by the president at his inauguration, the answer should be "No." Here's hoping that the commander in chief makes sure that the Army Corps of Engineers gets the message.