The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE, Corps, COE) is a Federal agency, a major Army command, and has approximately 37,000 civilian and military personnel. The Corps is the world's largest public engineering, design and construction management agency. The Corps' stated mission is “to provide vital public engineering services in peace and war to strengthen the nation's security, energize the economy, and reduce risks from disasters”.
The Corps began on 16 June 1775 when the Continental Congress established the Continental Army with a provision for a chief engineer. The Army established the Corps as a separate, permanent branch on March 16, 1802, and gave the engineers responsibility for founding and operating the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Throughout the 19th century, the Corps built coastal fortifications, surveyed roads and canals, eliminated navigational hazards, explored and mapped the Western frontier, and constructed buildings and monuments in the Nation’s capital. During the 20th century, the Corps became the lead federal flood control agency and significantly expanded its civil works activities, becoming among other things, a major provider of hydroelectric energy and the country's leading provider of recreation; its role in responding to natural disasters also grew dramatically. In the late 1960s, the Corps became a leading environmental preservation and restoration agency. Since 1974, the Corps has received most of its authorization from Congress through the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).
The Corps is organized geographically into eight permanent divisions, one provisional division, one provisional district, and one research command reporting directly to the Headquarters located in Washington, D.C. Within each division, there are several districts. Districts are defined by watershed boundaries for civil works projects and by political boundaries for military projects.
The most visible missions of the Corps include:
Other formal missions include warfighting, homeland security, and disaster relief.
Through its Civil Works program, the Corps carries out a wide array of water resource projects that provide coastal protection, flood protection, hydropower, navigable waters and ports, recreational opportunities, and water supply, and environmental protection and restoration. Major areas of emphasis include the following:
The primary reason the Corps needs reform is that many projects are approved with bogus justification by federal legislators in order to send pet projects to their home states even if they are environmentally damaging. Frequently, funding for the Corps through WRDA is more about how and where the money is spent than what is accomplished.
A classic example of a Corps pet project with environmentally damaging consequences is the 33 year effort by Senator Jessie Helms, the retired Republican Senator from North Carolina, to get the Oregon Inlet jetties project authorized via WRDA. A project long opposed by the Surfrider Foundation's Outer Banks Chapter, this $108 million boondoggle planned to build two of the world's longest jetties along the beaches of the North Carolina's Outer Banks. The project was ostensibly intended to benefit local fisherman who complained of hazardous navigational conditions at the Oregon Inlet. However, scientists warned that the jetties would create a serious erosion problem at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
The federal General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded the Corps study justifying the jetties was badly flawed. Fortunately, in a bold move, the Bush Administration killed this project for reasons that are discussed below. This is just one example. Other problems with WRDA-approved projects for the Corps of Engineers are more systemic. For instance, the Corps routinely fails to mitigate the environmental harm caused by Corps levees, dams, flood control, and waterway projects.
The same GAO report that highlighted the folly of the Oregon Inlet project found that the Corps failed to mitigate at all for 69 percent of projects constructed since 1986, when the existing mitigation law was passed. When the Corps does mitigate, it routinely fails to restore one acre of habitat for each acre lost; wetland and other aquatic habitats are often replaced with less ecologically valuable habitat types; and monitoring is not conducted to see whether the created habitats work as promised.
This failure to mitigate has very real ecological and economic implications. For example, wetlands filter pollutants from water; absorb and slow the release of storm runoff; recharge aquifers; provide crucial wildlife habitat for millions of migrating waterfowl, shorebirds and other species; and provide recreation and enjoyment to millions of Americans who visit wetland areas each year. When wetland losses are not mitigated, water quality is harmed, water supplies are strained, flood damages increase, and wildlife is harmed.
The Corps of Engineers are also responsible for many beach fill projects, harbor dredging, and construction of seawalls along the coast. While some of the projects may be necessary or even desirable, it is essential that the Corps of Engineers is held accountable for sound science, fair economic evaluation, fulfilling their obligations and listening to local communities and the public. Influencing the amendments to the Water Resources Development Act is an effective means to change the Corps behavior.
Since so many coastal projects that Surfrider Foundation chapters work on involve the Corps of Engineers, Surfrider joined the Corp Reform Network, which was later renamed the Water Protection Network (WPN). WPN was launched in 2002 out of the frustration state, local and national organizations felt after decades of attempting to save vital resources threatened or damaged by Corps proposals and projects. WPN provides support and assistance to grassroots groups seeking help in stopping unjustifiable projects and in steering the Corps toward more friendly approaches. The network has crafted legislative proposals and provides the grassroots muscle to help make reform a reality. Comprising 192 national, regional and local organizations, including Surfrider Foundation, representing millions of Americans, WPN provides a unified voice to clearly demonstrate that Americans across the country support Congressional action and expect the benefits of Corps reform to come home to the projects in their own backyards.
WPN works to advocate changes in the policies and practices of the Army Corps of Engineers so that the agency ceases promoting projects and issuing permits that result in wasting taxpayers dollars, destroying and degrading America's water and coastal resources. Instead, the Corps should assist in the protection, restoration and recovery of damaged habitat. WPN seeks to assist and support member organizations in understanding and dealing with Corps regulations, activities and projects that affect local water resources. WPN also seeks to improve the effectiveness of organizations working to reform the Army Corps of Engineers by providing technical, legal and other support, and by providing timely information to assist groups participating in federal policy decision-making.
The Water Protection Network is jointly led by American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation. For assistance on a Corps-related issue, please contact Surfrider Foundation's Coastal Science Manager, Mark Rauscher, at email@example.com
In September 2003, the House of Representatives approved a $5 billion WRDA. For the first time, the bill includes some modest measures to reform the Corps—not enough to solve the Corps' problems, but a significant first step. Included in the bill are an independent review provision to ensure accountability from independent sources, language to improve mitigation procedures and first steps toward updating the Corps' antiquated planning guidance. Unfortunately, the bill also includes language to "streamline" NEPA (See Making Waves Vol. 9, Number 4 article on NEPA) provisions, which raises concerns about adequate environmental review of the impacts of proposed Corps projects.
Ironically, the Bush administration, which has been dreadful on almost all environmental fronts, has been an ally when it comes to Corps reform. For example, Mississippi Congressman Mike Parker, who was assigned to oversee the Corps, was the first administrator to get fired under Bush's watch due to his efforts to stuff the Corps budget with pork. Whether this tightening of the Corps belt is motivated for concern about the environment or reduction in federal spending, the result has been to move the Corps in a greener direction.
Corps reform was considered, but not enacted during the 108th Congress in 2004. There was another attempt (WRDA 2005) in the 109th Congress.
On November 8, 2007, WRDA 2007 became law and is now called P.L. 110 - 114. The new law requires the corps to modernize its project planning, strengthen its wetlands mitigation, and independently review certain projects. The law also authorizes $28 billion worth of projects.
Much of the information for this article was gleaned from the website of WPN and the excellent websites of American Rivers and National Wildlife Federation on WRDA and Corps Reform:
Also, Michael Grunwald has written extensively on the Corps of Engineers, including: