Reforming The Corps With a Backlog of Projects and Dismal History, the Army Corps of Engineers Needs an Overhaul

The stated purpose of the The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is to “provide vital public engineering services in peace and war to strengthen our nation’s security, engage the economy and reduce risks from disasters.” However, as George Sorvalis, Corps Reform Network coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation points out, “the Corps currently has $81 billion of congressionally authorized, but not-yet-constructed projects on the books and a construction budget of only $2 billion per year. Because of this huge project backlog, many of our nation’s most pressing water infrastructure needs are not being met.”

Environmental advocates say the Corps is in need of a serious overhaul. In November 2008, close to 30 of the nation’s leading environmental groups presented their recommendations to President Obama in the report “Transition to Green” (see also “The Green Roadmap,” page 28.). In it, they highlighted three approaches to improving the Corps: restoration, reform and regulation.

Under restoration, the report said the “new” Corps should maintain as its highest priority “the protection and restoration of healthy, fully functioning ecosystems and their associated ecological services’ and that “projects should be designed for ecosystem restoration and protection projects, backed by credible science and sufficiently funded.” With the encroaching seas reclaiming more and more beachfront habitat, restoration, commonly referred to as beach replenishment, must be scientifically supported.

The Water Resources Development Act of 2007 already “requires the Corps to implement a number of reforms that are important for the health, safety and welfare of people and wildlife.” Sorvalis says that “working with natural systems instead of against them, restoration projects and other nonstructural engineering solutions help fish and wildlife thrive, provide clean water, improve economies and help communities withstand the more severe weather linked to climate change. “However,” he adds, “the Corps often overlooks restoration projects and nonstructural solutions, the projects do not receive the priority funding needed, and are failing to move forward fast enough.”

Prioritizing Waterways

The struggling economy gives President Obama a great opportunity to create infrastructure jobs. In December 2008, he announced he was going to create three million new jobs and use infrastructure construction as one of the largest components of his plan. The “Transition to Green” report suggests that in the first 100 days the president “issue an executive order on ecosystem restoration, including the creation of the Office of Ecosystem Restoration at the Council on Environmental Quality, and highlight ecosystem restoration funding in the President’s budget proposal.”

Environmental groups say the Obama administration would also need to ensure that the Corps protects natural and manmade waterways like the Inter-Coastal Waterway. For instance, in Texas the USACE routinely dredges just three of the area’s 15 channels due to lack of funding, leaving entire shrimping fleets trapped in their docks. Lack of channel dredging also prevents bay systems from receiving the necessary water exchange between gulf and bay to maintain healthy salinity levels and fresh water flushes from rain events and storms.

By their own admission in a 2006 report, it was failures within the Corps that led to the disastrous 2005 flooding of New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina. Mistakes in engineering and design left gaps throughout the New Orleans levee system, and did not account for the sandy foundation that allowed certain levees to sink. Overall, the levee system was never completed and poorly executed, leaving 169 miles of protective barriers damaged and more than 1,570 residents dead.

And Corps’ shortcomings have affected smaller fishing communities, too. In Port Mansfield, Texas, citizens had to petition the Corps through local senators and Congressional representatives to dredge the Port Mansfield Cut—their access to the Gulf. The fight took more than five years and thousands of signatures to get it done. Port Mansfield relies on recreational fishing to keep the community alive. Longtime resident and fishing guide Captain Teddy Springer says, “If the Corps didn’t dig out the ditch, I wouldn’t have a job. We were seeing a decline in our fishing and our big boats couldn’t get out to the gulf.”

Sorvalis adds that, “restoring coastal and aquatic ecosystems throughout the country should be a fully funded national priority with the Corps.”

The greatest challenge facing the Corps is funding. To complete its reconstruction of the New Orleans levee system, the Corps has already spent over $4 billion of a total $14 billion set aside by Congress to fix the city’s hundreds of miles of levees by 2011. Still, the 17th Street Canal, one of the most disastrous losses for the city during Katrina, showed signs last May of leaking again, leaving engineers and scientists scrambling. But with a larger, national financial crisis on its hands, the ability for the Obama administration to breathe life back into the Corps, through both reform and greater monetary support, will be a tall order.