History is about the present. Think about it. People had to live their lives centuries ago just like you do today. Food, shelter, and safety were their concerns, as well as yours. In the early 1800’s, they didn’t have all the comforts of daily life we take for granted today. For example, transportation from one place to another was literally rough. Roads went from town to town as did most river transportation. Neither was part of an interconnected system. Because of the nation’s vast size and resources, water offered the best opportunity to move people and goods from one place to another. Congress saw the need to create a system of water highways. They invested heavily in what they called internal improvements, giving us over the next 150 years the vast inland waterway and port systems we have today. That was followed by trains, which also needed an interrelated plan to assure the movement of people and goods, followed by highways and the system that we call Interstates.
Sometimes I marvel at how smart people were a century or two ago. Take this for example: By the 1900’s, Congress actually had the foresight to focus on the need for long-range funding for comprehensive approaches to watersheds. Focus on these words: long-range, comprehensive, and watershed. Don’t let the last word throw you. It simply indicates that we all live in areas where our various water resources are part of a system. In the Washington, DC area, for example, we’re part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
By the mid-1980’s, Congress had made a series of significant decisions that unintentionally focused turned the focus away from interrelated systems to individual water resource projects. Also, the process for getting projects started from the bottom up—a request from a Mayor or a Governor. That sounds like the American Way, but it also meant that we weren’t looking at the needs of the system. Why should Federal investments, even those that are cost-shared, as these are, with State and local governments, depend on who raises their hand or who has the most political stroke? There is a regional system for deciding about highway and public transit expenses because it’s so easy to see their inter-related.
There is nothing comprehensive or long-range about this project-by-project approach, not to mention the increasing inability to have a multi-purpose project, say one that reduces coastal storm damage while also restoring a bird habitat. Congress and the Corps have created barriers to common sense that have to be eliminated. It wasn’t intentional; it was just the way government works. Once you start down a slippery slope, it’s hard to stop and smell the roses.
We’ve got to return to the water resources focus of previous generations and undo this excessive focus on individual projects. Local initiative is still critical, but it is the collaboration of groups of local governments and alliances of states that need to be the leaders as we go back to the principles of the past to plot our course for regional coastal resilience. In a post later this month, I’ll get into my ideas of “how” we get to this point. In the meantime, I’d like to know your thoughts. Send them in confidence or for attribution to email@example.com,