The findings of the “World Economic Forum: Global Risks 2014” study on infrastructure were not encouraging to the United States. Once an international leader, the nation came in 14th worldwide, falling behind countries as diverse as Japan, Luxembourg, and the United Arab Emirates. On the key issue of port infrastructure, vital to navigation and commerce, the United States ranked even lower at 19th in the world.
With responsibilities that range from flood control to navigation to ecosystem restoration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Directorate of Civil Works includes some of the nation’s highest-profile water resource projects.
These trends are not news to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Directorate of Civil Works, which continues to face the daunting maintenance, repair, and engineering challenges. An aging infrastructure and limited government funding are among the pressures on the agency. But a series of new and refined policies within civil works is helping the program “do more with less” while helping to prioritize the highest-priority water resources investments including projects.
“The water resources problems facing the nation are complex,” said Steven L. Stockton, USACE director of Civil Works. In addition to aging infrastructure and limited budgets, challenges posed by climate variability, droughts, competition for limited water supplies, and increased coastal development also affect USACE civil works. “Effective water resources planning and management require a detailed understanding of the existing and potential future uses of water.”
For that reason, USACE takes a holistic look at water resources. As part of this task, the Civil Works program has made many significant changes in its planning processes, budgeting, service delivery, and management processes to promote effectiveness.
Civil Works’ Role
The portfolio of USACE’s Civil Works program is a broad one, as its budget funds the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of water resources projects. It also focuses on the highest-performing projects and programs within three main mission areas: commercial navigation, flood and storm damage reduction, and aquatic ecosystem restoration. Other goals are to promote safe and hazard-resilient communities and healthy aquatic ecosystems; affordable and reliable hydropower; emergency management services; quality and accessible recreation; and remediation of hazardous materials at former Department of Defense sites.
Yet with many aged dams and levees, reaching all of these goals is a tall order. Consider the challenges in navigation: Ship delays at USACE locks have doubled since 2009, while droughts have impeded the navigability of some inland waterways.
“We have deteriorating and underperforming civil works,” Stockton said, part of a cycle that includes aging facilities and insufficient investments. Yet USACE is touting the message that investments, even limited ones, in civil works can pay off handsomely. Every $1 invested in civil works generates $16 in total economic benefits and $5 in increased federal revenue, a theme that Stockton is making to policymakers in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
For USACE civil works, one core value is to look holistically within a water basin to involve different stakeholders and identify priorities. This process is timely, since it has coincided with a move by Congress and the White House to eliminate the practice of “earmarking” federal funds for lawmakers’ favorite projects.
“The earmark ban has had more impact than people initially thought,” Stockton said. The earmark system made it difficult for USACE to set priorities, as Congress used to fund specific studies in annual spending bills regardless of the views of experts at USACE. “We had too many studies, and the root cause was earmarks,” he said. But by eliminating this system, “it has given the Corps increased flexibility and more input into what goes into its budget.”
Together, USACE’s holistic approach and an end to earmarks have had a dramatic effect on the civil works planning process. “We have reinforced Integrated Water Resources Management by focusing on a watershed-based planning model,” he said, in which USACE experts develop plans across an entire watershed and set priorities based on holistic benefits, outcomes, and tradeoffs within that area.
During the era of earmarks, he said, “We would get spread too thin. There was just enough money to continue many studies, but we had insufficient funds to complete them.” He describes the new USACE approach as planning transformation with SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Risk Informed, and Timely) planning guidelines and principles including the institutionalization of “the 3-3-3 rule,” with the following objectives:
- Complete all studies within three years;
- Complete each study at a cost of $3 million or less; and
- Continue to reinforce involvement of the three vertical levels of USACE in the studies – at the district, division, and headquarters.
“We are now shaping both the budgets and the planning process,” Stockton said. As a result, USACE can objectively set the highest-priority projects and provide a framework to plan and complete these projects. “We’re now getting them done more quickly at a high level of quality,” he said.