White House spending targets social justice; criteria vague

Tourists pose for photos on Feb. 4, 2022 on the corner in Winslow, Arizona, made famous in the Eagles' song, "Take it Easy," with the line "Standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona." The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently announced a flood control project in the city would receive $65 million in funding. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)
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Associated Press

WINSLOW, Ariz. (AP) — This once-bustling city in northern Arizona has a troubled relationship with rain. Winslow needs it, but just a little can overwhelm a levee system that officials have pleaded with the federal government for years to fix.

Local officials believe a push from the Biden administration to fund projects that help disadvantaged communities gave them an edge this year. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently announced $65 million is going to Winslow’s flood control project.

“Until they were able to introduce criteria that recognized other social effects and socioeconomic level of communities and environmental impacts, it was just a numbers game,” Navajo County Public Works Director John Osgood said. “And until you could reach a certain level, you weren’t going to be competitive, you weren’t going to receive funding.”

President Joe Biden promised last year that 40% of the benefits of federal investments in areas such as climate change that can increase flood risk would flow to disadvantaged communities, including those with high rates of poverty and unemployment. The White House calls the effort Justice40.

The Biden administration recently announced $14 billion in spending on environmental restoration and infrastructure projects like the one in Winslow, where most residents are Native American or Hispanic, the median household income is less than $38,000 a year and a quarter of residents live in poverty. They say the spending is in line with Justice40 but have not detailed how.

That’s because some of the rules for Justice40 are still being written, raising concerns about how the administration is carrying out the policy and whether it’s being applied in a way that fulfills its promise. Even Winslow and the broader Navajo County don’t know how the math works out.

“There has to be accountability where we look back and say, ‘How well did we meet this objective?'” said Natalie Snider of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Two-thirds of Winslow — including a hospital, nursing homes, schools and utilities — is in a flood plain after the Federal Emergency Management Agency decertified a levee in 2008. A massive flood could affect an Interstate 40 bridge and a rail line over the Little Colorado River that carries $35 billion in cargo destined for the West Coast.

And the corner off Route 66 made famous in the Eagles song “Take it Easy,” with the line “Standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona,” would look more like a stream than a sidewalk in a flood, the city said.

Historically, environmental justice has been used during federal project reviews to consider the potential harm to a disadvantaged community. Biden’s executive order on Justice40 directs federal agencies to think about how their decisions and spending can benefit communities that have been ignored.

Typically, the Army Corps considers factors such as preventing property damage and job creation when it weighs the benefits and costs of projects. In the infrastructure bill, Congress said proposals that benefit disadvantaged communities should be prioritized for some projects in areas like flood mitigation.

The Army Corps’ $14 billion in funding includes the levee project in Winslow, the restoration of native riparian habitat in New Mexico’s Espanola Valley that is heavily Hispanic and Native American and work on a tidal channel through San Juan, Puerto Rico, that is clogged with waste and debris.

Estrella D. Santiago Pérez, an environmental affairs manager for a group that has long pushed for the Puerto Rico dredging project, said the $163 million in federal funding will help improve the health of the San Juan Bay Estuary. It also will enhance living conditions for residents near the Martín Peña Channel who suffer when frequent flooding sends sewage-infested water into their homes. Some residents must relocate.

What’s less clear is how much of a factor social, environmental or economic justice plays in funding decisions. The Office of Management and Budget released interim guidance to federal agencies last July and said a final version is in the works.

On Friday, the Biden administration released a preliminary tool that identifies disadvantaged communities that should benefit from Justice40. That tool, which considers factors like the poverty rate and a community’s susceptibility to climate change, identifies Winslow as a disadvantaged community. It does not include race as a factor. Officials say it was designed to withstand a potential court challenge.

The Biden administration is still developing scorecards to track how well agencies are carrying out Justice40.

“Until that happens, we won’t be able to judge the Biden-Harris administration,” said Kyle Whyte, a University of Michigan professor who is on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

Rural counties such as Navajo and Santa Cruz in California have pushed for years for social justice to be more of a factor in funding from the Army Corps so that projects from disadvantaged communities would be more competitive.

“It’s not fully baked into the calculus yet,” said Mark Strudley, the flood control manager in Santa Cruz County.

Strudley cited a largely migrant labor force, a significant Spanish-speaking population and a growing poverty rate as reasons the federal government should fund a flood control project near the Pajaro River.

The project in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties got a boost last year when the state decided to fund the full non-federal cost, but it wasn’t among the Army Corps’ most recent funding recipients.

Local officials also have said that poor, small and rural communities struggle without the resources they need for studies.

“The communities that you want to help the most are the communities that have the least capacity to compete for the money,” said Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative.

Even with funding granted, local sponsors sometimes must scramble to fulfill the cost share.

In Arizona, Navajo County and Winslow must come up with 35% of the cost for design and construction of the levee project, which is $35 million. The city has some money in savings and is exploring other options but doesn’t want to impose additional taxes on residents, City Manager John Barkley said.

The decertification of the Winslow levee that runs several miles alongside the Little Colorado River forced some residents to buy flood insurance. Data from FEMA showed the Winslow ZIP code has more than 250 active policies.

If a 100-year flood hit Winslow, up to 10 feet (3 meters) of water could inundate some areas, putting public safety and health at risk, according to an Army Corps study released in 2018.

The Little Colorado River has a life of its own, taking different paths as it carries heavy sediment and debris from flooding. Residents have crafted dikes over the years using old cars, dirt and cement.

“That river, you can’t tell it which way to go,” said Virgil Nez, who is Navajo and lives nearby. “Every year, it changes.”

Elderly residents, children, and a group of Navajos and Hopis whom the federal government relocated to Winslow decades ago as part of a land dispute between the two tribes are most vulnerable to flooding and would have the hardest time recovering, the city and county say.

Weather whiplash associated with climate change could lead to more frequent flooding, said Osgood, the county public works director. Local officials plan to install an alarm that will sound throughout the city if the river floods as they work on the levee system.

“We’ve been fighting for this for a long time, so as soon as we possibly can get started, we will,” Osgood said.