For years, environmentalists and government officials alike sought renewal of the Florida Everglades, with a goal to restore wetlands, build reservoirs, and remove the crumbling roads that were built for failed housing subdivision projects.
Now, thanks to a major law enacted by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in 2009, those efforts are getting renewed attention.
The federal statute is the $787 billion economic stimulus law, formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. Signed into law in February 2009, the legislation is creating and saving millions of jobs while addressing long-neglected infrastructure challenges for the 21st century. Among the top priorities of ARRA are civil works, military construction, and military support projects carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
“Funding provided in the Recovery Act has enabled the Corps to provide lasting value for the nation by addressing much-needed infrastructure improvements in both water resources and military construction,” said Gary Loew, Civil Works Programs Integration Division chief. USACE ARRA projects span 49 of the 50 states as they maintain and improve the nation’s ports, harbors and waterways, restore ecosystems and provide military support nationwide.
USACE received $4.6 billion in ARRA funding for civil works projects, along with $2.85 billion for military construction, including $35 million for Energy Conservation Investment Program projects and nearly $30 million for Research, Development, Testing and Evaluation.
USACE also received more than $550 million funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies for the Interagency and International Services program. These efforts enable USACE’s interagency partners to operate new Land Ports of Entry that secure borders, accelerate cleanup of hazardous waste and provide modern medical facilities for military veterans.
To meet the law’s requirements to obligate ARRA funds for contracts by the end of September 2010, USACE funded projects that were “shovel ready.” The projects had already received prior congressional authorization and appropriation; and had received the required technical, environmental and engineering approvals. They simply needed a source of federal funding to bring them to reality.
Since projects already were in the federal pipeline, USACE was able to move quickly to get work under way. In civil works, for example, USACE awarded every scheduled contract and obligated 96.4 percent of the available $4.6 billion by the end of September, Loew said. The remaining, unobligated funds are carried forward to administer the contracts for projects still under construction. As of the end of August, 73 percent of the civil work ARRA contracts and 51 percent of the dollars had been awarded to small businesses.
USACE also obligated $2.54 billion for military projects, or 89 percent of the funding available by mid-September. For international and interagency services, USACE had obligated $532 million by the end of September, or 99.7 percent of the available $534 million.
Amid all this activity, Loew says it is a challenge to manage a workload that is “substantially above the norm” while ensuring that USACE also meets its non-ARRA mission goals in civil works, military construction, and international support. He credits a strong USACE workforce that is capable of juggling multiple projects and challenges.
“The Corps’ success in executing the ARRA mission can be directly attributed to the planning and preparation done at all levels of the Corps,” he said. “We identified projects that were ready to go and that met the intent of ARRA, stayed flexible in responding to changes in where and how the funds could be executed, and maintained dedication and commitment throughout the Corps’ workforce to accomplish the mission,” he said.
As in all of its projects, USACE is carrying out its ARRA work “with the highest standards of engineering and science,” he said.
In civil works, the Everglades project is among those with the highest profile. Soon after passage of the law, USACE provided $40 million from ARRA to help fully fund the $53 million federal share of the Picayune Strand project in southwest Florida.
When the Picayune Strand project is completed in late 2011, USACE will have constructed a pump station, plugged miles of canals, and restored the natural hydrology of the area. It also will have removed poor-quality roads built as part of a flawed vision in the 1960s to convert areas of the Everglades to housing to serve as a new suburb of Naples, Fla. USACE officials said the Picayune Strand project was the first federally funded component of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
“This is a huge advance for Everglades restoration. We’re moving into a period of intense construction activity around the ecosystem,” said Col. Al Pantano, Jacksonville District commander.
The project covers 55,000 acres of wetlands and uplands between Interstate 75 (dubbed Alligator Alley) and the Tamiami Trail on U.S. Highway 41 in southwest Florida. Years ago developers excavated canals and built roads in anticipation of the proposed residential development. The projects disrupted the region’s natural water flow and overdrained the area, leading to a damaging change to the regional ecosystem.
“Picayune Strand is a crown jewel of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan,” said Paul Souza, field supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s South Florida office. Forty years after the development of failed suburban subdivision plans, USACE is working with state and local agencies to maximize restoration effectiveness.
“This is another great example of federal, state, and local entities working together to accomplish more than anyone could achieve on its own,” Pantano added. Picayune Strand is one major part of the USACE $103 million allotment through ARRA to fund Everglades’ restoration. The USACE work also includes funding to help restore the Kissimmee River. Already, many experts have dubbed this endeavor as the world’s largest river restoration project. The Kissimmee originally meandered about 103 miles through a one- to two-mile floodplain. But the river was straightened in the 1960s, ultimately losing about two-thirds of its historical floodplain and triggering rapid declines in waterfowl, bird, and game fish populations.
Elsewhere in the Everglades, the Recovery Act will fund construction of a reservoir to benefit the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Palm Beach County. USACE officials say the refuge is the northernmost remaining area of the Everglades’ famous “river of grass” wetlands, providing protected habitat for native plants and animals.
Supporting Waterways Infrastructure
Overall, ARRA’s $4.6 billion civil works component includes $2 billion for construction, $2.1 billion for operations and maintenance, and $375 million for the Mississippi River and Tributaries account, Loew said.
In the Chesapeake area of Virginia, USACE will spend $27 million in ARRA funds on a variety of projects, including maintenance dredging on four of nine critical shoals on the James River. Cottrell Contracting of Chesapeake, Va., has the contract to conduct the work, which will ensure that deep-draft vessels can navigate safely on the James, the nation’s oldest transportation route for commerce.
The project also provides about 85 miles of deep-draft channels at a depth of 25 feet from Hampton Roads to Richmond, Va. About 5 million tons of cargo annually has moved on the James River during the past five years.
“The Recovery Act funds for civil works enable Norfolk District to complete these types of shovel-ready projects that will benefit our state and the nation for years to come,” said Col. Andrew Backus, Norfolk District’s commander.
Also in civil works is a $17.4 million ARRA-funded initiative to complete construction of a riverwall at the Monongahela River Locks and Dam 4 at Charleroi in western Pennsylvania. USACE officials say the project will provide direct and indirect jobs as part of the agency’s long-delayed Lower Monongahela River Project. Without ARRA funding, this work would not have been done in the near future.
“This is a needed shot in the arm for the project and the economy. We’re generating work as quickly as we can to bolster the region’s job growth and prosperity,” said Col. Michael Crall, Pittsburgh District commander.
While generating private-sector work, the project will modernize some deteriorating infrastructure “and take a bite out of a quarter of a billion dollars in critical backlogged maintenance here in the district,” he said. Locks and Dam 4 is one of 23 locks and dams USACE operates to maintain navigation on the upper Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela rivers.
Overall, the Pittsburgh District received $105.6 million for construction and $28.9 million for operations and maintenance projects through ARRA. Corps officials say the funding will have a direct impact on communities by:
- helping to reduce the risk of flooding in the region;
- restoring, protecting, and cleaning up our environment; and
- increasing the reliability of aging reservoir projects and a busy navigation system.
Other civil works and restoration programs include a $10.8 million project to stabilize a levee in Marysville, Calif. Installation of a 105-foot slurry wall will support a fragile area so that water will not seep through the levee. ARRA funding also will provide $49.7 million for civil works projects in Alaska, including dredging at the Port of Anchorage that will support other expansion efforts at the site. When completed, the port will nearly triple its size.
In southern Virginia near the North Carolina border, USACE will clean up four areas contaminated with dioxin and other toxics near John H. Kerr Lake.
“We have been wanting to clean up these areas for some time,” said Bill Bond, Wilmington District land use manager for lake projects. “ARRA made it possible for us to do the job.” The district also will use Recovery Act dollars to clean up an abandoned rail spur contaminated with fuel and a former youth camp with lead contamination from ammunition used at a firing range.
Since USACE serves as a construction agent for the Department of Defense (DoD), it is supporting a variety of ARRA-related military construction projects. The projects range from new child development centers for the children of Service members to new Warrior in Transition complexes to help wounded and injured Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine personnel returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere.
“The Corps is overseeing the modernization and repair of military facilities throughout the nation to ensure our Soldiers and their families are provided with the types of facilities they so richly deserve,” Loew said.
One example is at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, where ground was broken in June on an $8 million, 23,000-square-foot Child Development Center to accommodate the growing need of base personnel for child care services.
While a current child care facility serves 130 youngsters, there is demand for 300 slots, said Col. Stephen Clark, 27th Special Operations Wing commander. “We have 160 on the waiting list and close to half of those have not been born yet,” he said.
With families seeking a safe, healthy environment for young children, the project will fill a major need at the base. Completion is scheduled for April 2011.
Thanks to $83.9 million in ARRA funding, USACE is building two Warrior in Transition complexes, one at Fort Bliss, Texas, and the other at Fort Campbell, Ky. These facilities will provide space for wounded and injured warriors to recuperate from injuries sustained during service. The barracks are designed for individuals from all service branches who no longer require hospital care but could benefit from a healing environment, and there is ample room for family members as well.
The Warriors in Transition complexes are similar in many respects. At Fort Bliss, the three-story building has 140,000 square feet of space with 116 apartments and 232 beds. Each module has two bedrooms and two baths with a shared kitchenette. Fort Campbell’s facility is almost identical with capacity for 206 beds, and both sites will have gardens for outdoor relaxation.
Each site also will have a battalion headquarters and company operations headquarters, while a Soldiers’ and family activity center will offer counseling and social services, legal/financial support, and a child-activity center.
DoD originally estimated it would take $100 million in ARRA funds to cover the construction costs of both complexes, but USACE said bids came in lower than expected, with a projected final cost of $83.9 million. USACE will use the remaining $16.1 million to provide more amenities at some of the 18 other Warrior in Transition facilities built independent of the Recovery Act.
While these transition complexes have gained considerable attention, ARRA is funding other construction projects as well. Fort Hood, Texas, is gaining several new facilities, including a new child development center and a hospital.
In addition, USACE is executing more than $550 million in ARRA funding provided by the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies through USACE’s International and Interagency Services program. These efforts will enable interagency partners to operate new Land Ports of Entry that secure the nation’s borders, accelerate environmental cleanup of hazardous waste, and provide modern medical facilities for military veterans.
“From the outset, the Corps has worked hard to ensure the appropriate people and processes were in place to perform rigorous oversight of contracting, contractors, and program execution,” Loew said. Yet, he noted, “That is no different than our long-standing objectives for the normal execution of our military and civil works programs.”
USACE also is supporting wounded warriors and the families of fallen warriors through direct financial assistance. ARRA brought major changes to the Homeowners Assistance Program (HAP), an initiative dating back to 1966 that traditionally has aided Service members who must sell their house at a loss due to base closure or realignment.
While continuing to provide that aid, the government is offering expanded benefits in this challenging economy – with stimulus funding of $555 million. Under ARRA, HAP is providing benefits to wounded Soldiers and spouses of Soldiers killed while performing their duties since 9/11 and those undergoing a permanent change of station during the nation’s real estate and mortgage crisis. USACE manages this program for the DoD.
DoD civilians who meet eligibility criteria also can obtain assistance. “Our Service members, Department of Defense civilians, and their families deserve this assistance,” said Col. Thomas C. Chapman, Sacramento District commander.
As it deftly handles these many responsibilities from civil works to military benefits, USACE also has met one other priority of ARRA – to provide regular public updates of its work in a timely manner.
“We have complied with requirements to provide the American public with transparent accountability of how their money is being spent,” Loew said.
“The Corps is fully committed to achieving the president’s and Congress’ vision for the civil and military funding provided in the Recovery Act, and has acted to quickly put those funds to use to help get people back to work and to help with the nation’s economic recovery,” he added.
Applying ARRA Funds to Help Disabled Veterans
Of all the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) programs undertaken by USACE, no project may be more vital to returning Servicemen and women than three projects in Augusta, Ga., St. Louis, Mo., and Washington, D.C.
In those cities, USACE has developed Veterans Curation Project laboratories – an innovative way to provide jobs and job training to returning veterans, many of them with disabilities.
Veterans of all services are eligible to work and train at the three laboratories. The expectation is that the technical skills veterans learn at the labs can be transferable to jobs outside in the public or private sector. Officials say they selected the three sites for the laboratories because the regions are home to large populations of wounded and returning veterans.
“The three Veterans Curation Project laboratories funded by the Recovery Act are unique opportunities for the nation’s armed forces and the Corps of Engineers,” said Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works. “No group of people has done more to forge our national identity throughout history than the veterans who have served and sacrificed for our nation.”
The objective of curation is to manage and maintain the archeological and historical properties now in USACE’s possession as the result of construction projects across the country, Darcy said. At the three labs, veterans will receive training in computer, photographic, and scanning technologies as they work with archeological collections and related records.
The labs “will advance the curation of archeological and historic properties that have come into the Corps’ possession over the years as a result of construction at its water-project sites around the country,” Darcy noted.
The goal is to work with a group of 10 veterans at each site for a six-month period so they can receive comprehensive training. After six months, another group will participate in job training at each site.
Since 1995, USACE has operated the Center of Expertise for Curation and Management of Archeological Collections in its St. Louis District to provide protocols and best practices to maintain historical and archeological assets. With its extensive collection, however, it is a significant task for USACE to fully follow proper curation requirements under the National Historic Preservation Act and the Native American Graves Preservation and Repatriation Act.
Working with the Department of Veterans Affairs and non-governmental wounded warrior organizations, USACE and its contractor are filling many of the laboratory jobs with veterans and disabled veterans. For those unable to work a full day, USACE provides rotations and specially tailored jobs so disabled veterans can participate.
“The labs are an innovative approach to supporting returning veterans with jobs and training in a variety of technical skills,” Darcy said.
This article first appeared in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Building Strong®: Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces.