By Hamilton, Joan
Sierra , Vol. 77, No. 2
Can the Army's engineers march to nature's drummer?
In the 1960s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers diverted the flow of the sinuous Kissimmee River into a huge concrete ditch. Once a bearer of pure water to Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, the river and its hundred miles of meanders stagnated, and Canal 38 was born--a 50-mile-long straight shot through the heart of central Florida.
"The Ditch," as environmentalists derisively dubbed it, was scarcely complete before it started to look like an engineering Jekyll and Hyde. It worked well enough for flood control --the project's raison d'etre--but its effects on the area's once-abundant waterfowl and fish were monstrous. By the mid-1970s the Kissimmee's ibis and eagles were almost gone. Also belly-up were 6 billion freshwater shrimp and six species of fish. The 200,000 acres of marshland the river once fed were replaced by dairy herds and dust. Its flows were polluted by farm runoff; they also became erratic--too high in the rainy season and too low in the dry.
The state's governor and its congressional delegation came to view Canal 38 as a costly mistake that jeopardized not only wildlife and parks but also the water needed to sustain Florida's growing human population. Starting in the early 1970s the state went back to the Corps at regular intervals, asking for a reversal of its magic. The Army engineers balked: Why should they tear down what had taken ten years and $30 million to build?
The Corps had other philosophical qualms as well. For years this public-works branch of the Army has battled steadfastly against nature, not for it. Founded in 1802, the Corps took on civilian duties in addition to its military work in 1824, building the dams, levees, bridges, and channels that the developing nation demanded. In its heyday, the Corps was regarded as almost heroic, the ultimate in can-do efficiency, with everything from small-town reservoirs to the Washington Monument, the Panama Canal, and the Manhattan Project in its mission-accomplished file.
By the 1960s, however, the cheers were muffled by jeers from people concerned about the dark side of the Corps' triumphs: rivers imprisoned, wetlands lost, canyons flooded. (Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once went so far as to call the Corps "public enemy number one.") In 1970 the Corps bowed to criticism, promising in new guidelines to "give environmental values the full consideration that is their due."
The Corps' green pronouncements continued throughout the 1970s and '80s, but the agency still seemed unclear on the Kissimmee concept. In 1985 the Corps recommended that the river not be restored, citing a lack of economic benefits. Congress came back with legislation in 1986 that specifically instructed the Corps to undertake such restoration projects--in fact that it couldn't precisely calculate the dollar value of a wild duck or a meandering stream. …