If there is any United States government agency that
has survived longer than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE),
it is hard to think of one. The Corps began in 1775, when the Continental
Congress authorized a chief engineer to build fortifications for Washington's
troops at Bunker Hill and other areas near Boston. Through the ensuing
centuries, the USACE has provided the nation with vital services: military
support through numerous wars, road construction, the dredging of harbors
and inland waterways, flood control, and hydroelectric power.
The agency that has survived more than 200 years is currently
at a crossroad. On the domestic front, environmentalists have long
criticized the Corps for damming rivers and building levees without
giving much thought to the effect on native species and ecosystems.
Congress has accused the agency of pursuing large construction projects
with little benefit other than local economic development. In the midst
of these accusations, the Corps also finds itself facing a fact of
life in the 21st Century: The big dam and hydrology construction projects
that have defined its mission in the past are all pretty much done.
But as its relevance is doubted by some at home, the
agency finds itself with added military duties. It is the lead agency
in awarding contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq and its oil industry.
These duties include restoring the power grid in Baghdad and other
cities, rebuilding bridges and roadways, constructing barracks and
other infrastructure to service the troops, and trying to restore pipelines
and port facilities to get Iraqi oil flowing again. This is in addition
to similar work being done in Afghanistan. And all this is being done
under the constant threat of suicide bombers and sabotage.
The military function is also being played out at home.
With the Corps' duties including protecting the nation's
water supply, the USACE finds itself devoting resources to preventing
biological and chemical terrorist attacks at many reservoirs. It is
an odd conundrum for the agency: budgets being cut, relevance being
questioned, all while many important duties are being added.
The USACE has about 35,000 employees, about 25,000 working
on civil projects and 10,000 working on the military side. But of the
35,000 employees, only about 600 are commissioned military officers.
The Corps' budget is $15.2 billion a year, with about 70 percent
of that going to contracts let out to private corporations and managed
by the Corps. About 60 percent of the total budget goes for military
construction. The Bush administration has cut the budget by about 10
percent for 2004, affecting mostly the civil works side of the ledger.
Hardest hit will be the construction budget, which will be slashed
16 percent to $1.4 billion. These cuts will be felt deeply in private
engineering firms who participate in Corps' construction contracts.
Change in Course
In addition to budget cuts, another problem for the USACE
is its aging workforce. It is estimated that about one third of its
35,000 employees will be facing retirement in the next decade. The
leadership of the USACE is worried that decades of expertise and agency
memory will be lost with the coming retirements. One of the ways
the Corps is responding to the challenge of retooling the agency, from
one that historically managed huge construction projects to one that
will handle environmental restoration issues, is by teaming with universities
to retrain some of its employees. Prodded by the looming retirement
of so many of its workers, the Corps is working with several universities
to offer a fast-track master's program that will offer courses
applicable to the new mission. Schools that are offering
programs include Johns Hopkins University, Southern Illinois University,
the University of Arizona, and Washington State University.
University engineering professors are also serving on
panels looking into new directions for the Corps. Some of this help
has been mandated by Congress. Panels have been convened by the National
Research Council (NRC) to study how the Corps has operated in the past
and to suggest how it can move into the future. They are in the
midst of dealing with a lot of problems, says James K. Mitchell,
distinguished professor emeritus in civil and environmental engineering
at Virginia Tech. But from where I sit, we want them to accomplish
their mission. They are the only agency that can handle big projects
from beginning to end. Mitchell chaired the first NRC study panel
that last year recommended independent peer review committees to study
some of the larger Corps projects, such as the Louisiana Coastal Area
Study, the Upper Mississippi-Illinois Waterway, and the $8 billion
restoration of the Florida Everglades.
New congressional language in the budget requires the
Corps to only pursue projects that have a high net economic or
environmental return to society. As such, the new budget includes
some big ticket items for environmental studies. About $33 million
in new funding will be used for environmental projects on the upper
Mississippi River. David Moreau, a civil engineering professor of water
resources and environmental planning at the University of North Carolina-Chapel
Hill, and a member of the NRC's peer review panel, says the USACE
is evolving into a green corps, an agency that will be
able to manage large-scale restoration projects.
They are emerging with a very strong environmental
component, Moreau says. The Corps is still the only agency
that has the capability of looking at large-scale environmental systems
like the Upper Mississippi and the Everglades. Where else would you
turn to manage a project like the restoration of the Everglades? The
Environmental Protection Agency doesn't have the experience of
bringing the construction expertise to the table. Local agencies cannot
manage such a huge project. To lose their ability, expertise in these
areas would be a major loss for the country.
The Corps' culture has been changing for some
time, says Warren Bud Viessman, associate dean for
academic programs at the University of Florida's College of Engineering
and professor of environmental engineering sciences. There is
more than just a technical dimension to what they are doing now. They
have to be well versed in social science and economics, in environmental
restoration, and managing numerous interests. This program will help
address those needs, as well as helping them deal with the number of
senior people retiring.
Viessman is coordinating the University of Florida master's
program for Corps workers, a program that will offer courses in water
resource management, as well as decision support systems, economics,
quantitative method, and ecology. The flexible program will require
15 credit hours of study at the school itself, but will allow for another
6 to 9 credit hours at another institution, with the remaining hours
completed through distance learning.
But as with any government agency, many of the problems
facing the Corps are political. The same members of Congress who criticize
pork projects favor such projects in their home districts. And the
Corps still has its primary mission of assisting military planning
and execution. The rationale behind the civil side of the Corps is
to keep the engineers' skills honedand provide national
benefitsduring peacetime. Those skills, both civilian and military,
are currently being used in Iraq and Afghanistan and at home as the
nation fights the war on terror.
We have folks going back and forth (from the civil
side to the military side), and the capabilities we have are portable
and translatable, says Corps spokeswoman Carol Sanders. What
we are doing now is using the civil and military expertise to bring
different folks to the table. That's where the Corps' expertise
How the Corps responds to the latest calls for change
ultimately depends on Congress and the White House. First Congress
has to decide what the military function is, and when you decide that,
you must decide what to do with those people when the military function
is not being used, says Leonard Shabman, a professor emeritus
of economics at Virginia Tech and chair of the coordinating committee
overseeing the NRC panel studies. Some in Congress love the Corps,
others see it as a big problem, but they change their tune when home
district projects come under fire. Congress is the ultimate problem
and the ultimate solution.
One of the things the Corps has going for it right
now is its ability to change, says Shabman. The institutional
memory is going fast, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
You could reinvent the Corps any way you want right now, and do it
Dan McGraw is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth,
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.