Draining the Swamp

A scorched-earth management philosophy is sucking the life out of our region's wetlands

But the corps has rarely investigated even the biggest violations far enough to dole out punishment. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show the agency confirmed 804 violations of wetlands regulations between 1992 and December 2004 in the Galveston district. Yet records and interviews with corps officials reveal less than 1 percent of those cases resulted in penalties.

In other states, people are severely penalized for filling wetlands without a permit, Sipocz says. "But as far as I know, this district doesn't do that."

Many of the few successful punishments are recent products of Cutler's efforts to fix the enforcement problems. Frustrated by the time-consuming and costly process of pursuing fines through the courts, he now negotiates punishments directly with violators. Since 2002, with the help of the district's attorney, he has extracted more than $200,000 from delinquent developers. Excepting one unusually large fine, that's more money than the corps won during the previous decade.

John Jacob and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department 
biologist Andy Sipocz are studying wetlands at 
Armand Bayou Nature Center.
Josh Harkinson
John Jacob and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Andy Sipocz are studying wetlands at Armand Bayou Nature Center.

But instead of praising the corps for enforcing the law, some local congressmen have excoriated the district. After Cutler halted the expansion of State Highway 6 in Sugar Land, which was about to destroy a long stretch of wetlands, Representative Tom DeLay forwarded letters to the district from irate highway contractors.

"The Corps has a new man in Galveston by the name Casey Cutler that seems to be causing all the problems," wrote Larry Deavers, president of Deavers Construction. "I am convinced he will shut down every highway project in his district."

Passing on letters from angry constituents is nothing new; most local congressmen forward reams of such correspondence. Yet DeLay took the unusual step of using his considerable sway to pressure the corps personally. He wrote to Lieutenant General Joe N. Ballard, the top commander of the corps in Washington, and asked him to loosen the Galveston district's clamp on Highway 6 and other freeways.

"There appears to be an indication that this may be a regional problem resulting from over-zealous enforcement and ultra-conservative delineation of wetlands," DeLay wrote. "I am extremely disturbed by reports that I have heard that some Corps personnel have used threats and intimidation to accomplish their goals.

"I urge the Corps to work with TxDot," he concluded, "and eliminate unnecessary delays in order to continue with these projects."

A Washington administrator wrote back and defended the district. Even so, that kind of pressure makes it hard to condemn workers within the corps for laxity, Blackburn says. "The Galveston district is in some respects one of the worst districts in the United States," he says. "In other respects, it's a reflection of the state of Texas."

And even when congressmen don't tamper with corps workers directly, they can neutralize them by slashing the agency's funding. Because of a limited budget, nine employees in the Galveston district's compliance section must police an area roughly the size of Florida. The section lost two enforcement officers in 2003 and could lose another this year.

Although overall funding for the corps dipped only slightly in 2004, conversations with corps regulators in three Southwestern districts reveal top Washington administrators privately directed regulators to slash key budgets even more.

One senior regulator, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, says the enforcement department has been put in a chokehold. The district has typically acted on 70 percent of known wetland violations each year, he says, but thanks to staffing cuts, last year touched only 43 percent of the cases. A worker complained of the backlog to Mark Sudol, national chief of the Corps' Regulatory Branch, he says, who told him the shortfall wasn't short enough. Sudol's instructions were to cut enforcement down to 30 percent of each year's cases and shift the rest of the enforcement money somewhere else. He threatened to move the funds himself if the department didn't comply.

Sudol denies instructing any district to cut enforcement funding. "What I did tell everybody was that this is going to be a lean year," he says. "With a flat budget after three years, we are down significantly."

The regulator says the noose on the department continues tightening. Beginning this year, he says, corps officials will be required to log one of nine expense codes for major activities, including enforcing wetland violations, conducting inspections and issuing different types of permits. "They want to be sure we are not putting more resources into busting people," he says.

Sudol confirms the codes will be used to set targets. In fact, he says, enforcement goals probably will be set at 25 to 30 percent of each year's violations -- on par with the levels the source reports he mandated. But, Sudol adds, individual districts can exceed enforcement goals if other departments also meet their targets.

Even so, several regulators view the moves as a backhanded attempt by the Bush administration to further weaken wetland protections without taking flak for it publicly. "You just strangle out these funds to these areas so nobody can do enforcement anymore," a regulator says. "That way, you can look like a good guy, because on the surface you are not opposing anything."

Thanks to modern science, politicians have a much harder time these days writing off wetlands as little more than vermin-infested swamps. Suburban marshlands clearly are not as sacrosanct as national parks, but from a health perspective, they do a lot more for city dwellers than does the Half Dome or Old Faithful.

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