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The Corps at a Crossroad

While the Army Corps of Engineers has been charged with helping to rebuild Iraq, the venerable agency finds itself IN trouble at home. It has turned to engineering educators
for help.

- by Dan McGraw

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 honed—and provide national benefits—during 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 lies.”

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 quickly.”

Dan McGraw is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.
He can be reached at dmcgraw@asee.org.

 

 
 
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