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Corps is facing an unsustainable future

By Staff | Apr 14, 2011

A recent study of the mission and methods of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tells a familiar story for those managing our nation’s shoreline: The agency is being tasked to do more with less, and faces a changed mission built on less reliable funding and more complex projects.

The report, the first of a series commissioned by the Corps from the National Research Council (part of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering), solicits independent advice on how the Corps could improve its functioning now and into the future. This initial effort focused on findings, not recommendations.

Even though coastal management gets only a small slice of the Corps’ multi-billion-dollar budget each year, the agency is the conduit for most federal funds for coastal management, along with other infrastructure maintenance that could affect beaches (such as inlet management) as well as permitting. Below are some of the report’s findings, with an explanation why coastal communities should be concerned:

“There has been a declining level of investment in the civil works infrastructure owned and operated by the Corps of Engineers. Deferred costs of maintenance of the nation’s aging flood and hurricane protection and navigation infrastructure are considerable. Despite decreasing emphasis on new construction, Congress and the nation will continue to rely upon the Corps for emergency response activities and for periodic upgrades to civil works infrastructure.”

With less annual funding and mounting deferred costs, competition for federal funds will increase… not a good prospect for coastal projects as the appropriations model shifts from one driven by Congress to one driven by the Corps. The final outcome of this shift may be favorable for coastlines, but the transition could be unsettling.

“Despite declining investment levels and numbers of Corps personnel, the nation expects the Corps to provide a number of services, including flood control, water-based recreation, commercial navigation, ecosystem restoration, hydropower production, and coastal and beach protection. This situation leads to expectations that the Corps of Engineers and its civil works construction program cannot meet consistently.”

A broader mission balanced on a narrower funding base is inherently unsustainable, even as coastal management (among the myriad Corps missions) is only successful when it can be consistently planned and undertaken.

“The backlog of authorized federal water resources projects that have not yet received appropriations, or which have begun some level of planning or construction and await additional funds for completion, is considerable. There is also a considerable backlog of existing water project and infrastructure maintenance. The collective backlog of unfinished work leads to projects being delayed, conducted in a stop-start manner, and to overall inefficient project delivery.”

As any coastal manager working on a federal project will tell you, this reality means your project funding needs to be creative (to cobble together sources), flexible (since projects must draw on numerous and diverse funders) and focused (because securing federal funding takes years of work, getting money over numerous budget years rather than all at once when your project needs it). Currently, just completing feasibility studies for coastal protection projects can average more than 10 years, which costs local communities and the federal government hundreds of thousands of additional dollars for just one step in the entire process.

“The modern context for water resources management involves smaller budgets, cost sharing, an expanded range of objectives, and inclusion of more public and private stakeholders in management decisions. Two important implications … are, (1) given current budget realities, the nation may have to consider more flexible, innovative and lower-cost solutions to achieving water-related objectives, and (2) the Corps of Engineers will by necessity work in settings with more collaboration and public and private partnerships than in the past.”

The future of coastal management belongs to the adaptable, and how your community adjusts will directly affect how it succeeds. For the Corps, change is never easy… but this report rightly deems it inevitable.

“The Corps of Engineers is increasingly challenged to provide a wide variety of water project benefits, some of which often are not consistent and compatible with one another. … the Corps increasingly finds itself involved in controversies over shared water resources that are beyond the agency’s mandates and resources to fully resolve.”

These broader missions will put the agency in conflict with itself. It will also force the agency to consider a broader scope of issues when it addresses coastal management projects and proposals, which could make life more complicated for local communities advancing those projects.

The report offers a final note: “The Corps of Engineers reflects a national water planning paradox: National water resources demands are increasing and becoming more complex, while at the same time, national investments in water infrastructure exhibit a declining trend. Moreover, in some parts of the nation there are additional water management objectives relevant to Corps project operations, such as water quality goals, in which the agency may be requested to expand its involvement.”

The bottom line: The Corps is facing a crucial crossroads in how it carries out its many missions, and coastal communities need both to be aware of the changing horizon of the agency and to be more proactive both in working with the Corps and in planning its coastal management strategy.

For more information about America’s beaches, visit the ABPA online at www.asbpa.org.