By Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, PMP, USA
As the leading public engineering organization, serving on behalf of the Department of Defense, other federal, state, and local agencies, and many domestic and international partners, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) delivers vital solutions through a diverse portfolio of missions that secure the nation, energize the economy, and reduce disaster risk.
The military programs USACE executes in a year can total over $20 billion and employ over 11,000 people. We are the world’s premier public engineering organization, responding to our nation’s needs in peace and war for the past 236 years.
Our major missions include military construction for the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, and other defense agencies; environmental services, including the Formerly Used Defense Sites Program, munitions response, cleanup, and environmental quality support to active and legacy installations; real estate services for Army Staff and provision of world-wide real estate services; international and interagency services; contingency support for Global War on Terrorism and Reconstruction infrastructure work; and installation support for 158 Army bases and 90 Air Force bases.
Our expertise and reputation for delivery has resulted in a growing program across all mission areas.
The Army’s Civil Works Program is the nation’s largest water resources mission and has three primary objectives: commercial navigation, flood and storm damage reduction, and ecosystem restoration. Requirements are implemented consistently with Congressional authorizations, including legislative initiatives and reforms, as well as the authorization of the studies and projects that we undertake. The infrastructure authorized by the Water Resources Development Acts benefits the well-being of America by contributing to economic growth, restoring ecosystems, and addressing significant risks to public safety.
Over the past several years, funding for the Civil Works program has increased greatly. Less than four years ago, the Army received a significant infusion of capital from the 2018 Bipartisan Budget Act ($17.4 billion), which was followed 16 months later by the 2019 Disaster Relief Act ($3.26 billion). These supplemental appropriations will allow us to reduce flood and coastal storm risks in communities across the nation and address damage caused to existing projects. The program has also received several consecutive years of record- high annual appropriations from FY2018 to FY2021 (spanning from $6.830 billion to $7.795 billion). Within the past several months, Congress also passed the Disaster Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2022 ($5.711 billion) and the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act ($17.089 billion). Together, these represent well over $22 billion for additional investments.
To put this growth in perspective: Historically, we have had a $20 billion to $22 billion annual program; recent increased funding and an expanding workload has grown this total to more than $90 billion. This funding provides a once-in-a-generation window of opportunity for the Corps and our partners to deliver water resources infrastructure that will extensively benefit communities across the nation. These funds also will be used to maintain existing infrastructure, ensuring that key features remain operational in support of flood risk management, commercial navigation, and ecosystem stewardship.
Preparing our workforce to execute this increased demand includes accelerated recruitment actions and workplace transformation initiatives to attract, develop, and retain top talent. As our workload grows, human capital efforts need to evolve as well. USACE must be a great place to work if we are to attract and retain diverse, world-class people.
With diversity of thought, we increase our ability to innovate and meet the differing needs of the public. USACE is committed to leveraging the unique talents of our team members to remain competitive today and in the future.
Executing our program also requires innovation in project delivery and partnering. We are fortifying our real estate expertise by identifying and acquiring land needed for our projects and evaluating opportunities to identify required properties earlier in the project cycle.
USACE has developed contracting tools that will allow us to establish and maintain partnerships and look at combining traditional delivery methods (design-bid-build) with alternative delivery concepts such as design-build and early contractor involvement. Additionally, we are monitoring supply and demand trends for building materials and other products to further enhance project delivery.
We are developing and implementing changes to programs and projects that incorporate and enhance resilience to climate change and help disadvantaged communities reduce their risks. USACE continues to provide meaningful engagement opportunities for disadvantaged communities, including rural areas, to enable them to adopt solutions to the impact of climate change.
An example of where climate change is affecting our mission and where further defining adaptation and investments in climate resilience will pay off is in addressing the growing risk of wildfires. While wildfires are a tool used by Mother Nature to clear land and keep landscapes healthy for thousands of years, they can be tremendously dangerous to communities, infrastructure, and natural resources. As terrain where wildfires occur becomes warmer and dryer, they become more severe, causing extensive damage.
Mitigating cascading wildfire effects. Recent wildfires have directly harmed watersheds like Lake Isabelle and Cochiti Lake in New Mexico, greatly increasing reservoir sedimentation rates. For years, Cochiti Lake was the poster child for sedimentation challenge; but as fires rage in the mountain states and on the West Coast, we are experiencing this problem at an accelerated rate.
Wildfire debris cleanup is a USACE mission, usually directed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Debris cleanup can include removal of damaged structures, damaged trees, and anything that can be washed downstream in a flood and cause greater damage, even hazardous waste. But cleaning up is not enough. Wildfires scorch the ground, creating a nearly glass-like, nonabsorbent surface that promotes erosion and flooding. Following the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, which burned about 50,000-acres, we estimate that about 7-T of sediment per acre flowed into the Federal Navigation Channel of the Columbia River and the intakes and navigation lock of the Bonneville Dam.
Along with dredging sedimentation from water systems, there is a lot of reconstruction during wildfire recovery. Wildfires are a unique and challenging problem for ecology management and water quality across the western United States. Through research and development efforts, we have adopted several tools that are making a difference in addressing this issue. After the Eagle Creek Fire, for instance, we supported with post-fire assessments and model development. We also assisted Santa Barbara County after the 2017 Thomas Fire and subsequent 2018 deadly and destructive debris flows. In both cases, recently developed tools and technologies were implemented in partnership with district partners to help recover and develop mitigation and management plans.
Research and development investment. We have a growing focus on research and development within USACE. These investments help us find solutions for today’s and tomorrow’s challenges, such as those posed by extreme rainfall events and the damage from severe floods and coastal storms.
We also are looking to research and development solutions to further enhance adoption of our sustainability strategies, including Engineering With Nature (EWN). The EWN initiative supports sustainable infrastructure systems and embraces the intentional and substantial use of natural systems in providing water resources solutions. Through EWN, we aspire to implement nature-based solutions for water resources projects in partnership with cost-sharing sponsors.
Through our engineering expertise and relationships with project sponsors and stakeholders, we are developing innovative approaches to address numerous water resources challenges facing the nation. Our top priorities are identifying the most critical potential investments, starting with the maintenance of our existing infrastructure, and ensuring that we deliver studies and finish quality projects safely, on time, and within budget.
I am focused on delivering projects that will enhance the nation’s resilience to climate change and ensuring that USACE continues to identify the best ways to manage, develop, restore, and protect water resources in collaboration with sponsors and partners. Our goal is to achieve a high economic, environmental, and public safety return on taxpayer investment for the nation, which will improve the lives of all Americans.
USACE has experienced exponential growth in the last several years. We have grown from a portfolio of just over $20 billion to well over $85 billion. Some of this growth has been due to the increasing severity of bad weather events and our COVID-19 response. But a big part of it has also been due to increasing demand for our services. Growth like this requires analysis to remain efficient if we are to finish quality projects, on time, within budget, and do it safely.
Of course, we cannot do this alone. Strategic engagement with partners has been a huge part of our effort. We have reached out to more than 1,000 stakeholders for feedback on improving our project delivery, and their feedback has guided innovative change. Sound partnerships require proactive engagement at all echelons and an enduring commitment toward working together to achieve common goals while building trust, transparency, and shared value. It also requires that we continuously work to improve partnerships and partnering outcomes by effectively managing relationships, soliciting feedback, and incorporating systematic learning into relationships. We are only successful when our partners are successful.
Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, PMP, USA, is U.S. Army Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
[This article first published in the July-August 2022 issue of The Military Engineer.]