Recently, a House subcommittee held a roundtable discussion that focused on concepts that ought to be included in the next Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). Now that you won’t have any new House of Cards episodes to watch, you probably are looking for an hour or two to fill some of that void in your Watchlist. If so, it’s well worth some skim watching.
At the time of this event, I mentioned that I had a few suggestions for what I have dubbed the Water Resources Reform Initiative (WRRI). Having waited as long as I could for the public to demand I share my thoughts, I’m nevertheless going to summarize them in this post.
First, some history. Water is the nation’s silent infrastructure, mostly forgotten when people talk about infrastructure initiatives. But waterways made it possible for people and commerce to reach parts of our country when railroads and highways were non-existent. By the mid-19th century, public works meant rivers and other waterways. As they became a national priority, Congress funded one project after another. The initial efforts managed to make sense as a group because the waterways brought goods and people to new frontiers like St. Louis, Chicago and then onwards to the West Coast, making it possible for our nation to grow.
Caveat: I’m confining my comments to Corps coastal resilience projects. They are referred to by Congress as “shore protection,” but are more accurately referred to by the Corps as Coastal Storm Risk Management projects. I’ll use the abbreviation of CSRM below.
My Recommendations for Coastal Water Resources
The Corps of Engineers budget is different from any other Federal agency because almost all of the funds it gets from Congress are appropriated for specific studies and projects. That’s a system that worked well in the 19th Century, but it’s outdated and needs to be changed. Like all civil works projects, CSRMs can only be started by a local or state government request. If that request is approved by Congress in a bill that supposedly can’t name projects (more about “earmarks” later), they have to be studied and constructed as individual projects, as if a sand or wetlands nourishment project in one county had no relationship to the next county to the north, east, south or west, or to regional ports and navigation channels.
- Restore congressional earmarks for the Corps: This has got to be Congressional Priority #1. It is totally nonsensical that the funding for each Corps study or project is, and always has been, earmarked by the President. Congress now has no input because it gave away its power to earmark. The folks at the White House Office of Management and Budget now can micro-manage not just which projects get funded, but also just about every move of the agency responsible for carrying out these water resource initiatives. Once you regain your power, Congress, you’ll be able to implement some of these other initiatives.
- Regionalize coastal projects. Most require sand, and we’re wasting too much that is either trapped in navigation channels or dredged and dumped offshore. Dredges mobilized for the renourishment of one project need to be able to be shifted to the next two or three projects. It takes at least $3 million to mobilize a dredge for a CSRM project. County A’s project gets nourished every 4 years, while it’s next-door neighboring County gets nourished every 3 years. In between is a Federal channel that gets dredged every 2 years. These are three separate dredge mobilizations that may be able to be combined under a regional plan. Studies have estimated cost savings of up to 15%!
- Adaptive Management: Regionalization will require modifying the plans for some projects, especially the year in which they were planned to be renourished. Those plans were set in stone when Congress authorized the project in a Water Resources Development Act. Essentially, they can’t be changed without a new study with all the associated cost and grief. Even if the engineering or environmental models proved to be wrong or new science has shown a better and possibly cheaper way of reducing risk, a new authorization is required. Congress needs to allow all existing projects and require all new ones to be adaptively managed.
- Multi-year budgeting: Almost every civil works project involves expenditures that go beyond a year. CSRM projects are, by law, 50-year projects with periodic sand nourishments over the length of that time. Currently, incremental annual Federal funding is unreliable and inefficient. Non-Federal sponsors can’t rely on it and operate on different budget cycles than the Federal government. Shifting to regional (I call it “coastalshed”) planning requires Congress to commit to a five- or ten-year budget plan. Give Corps Divisions and Districts the responsibility to come up with a multi-year coastalshed budget, and have the flexibility to make changes during that period that do not exceed their total budget. Projects can be prioritized and better managed, with Congress still having the power to approve these regional budgets.
- Include Funding for District Personnel in the Multi-Year Budget: Corps Districts are funded by the studies they do. They should get a budget based on a five- or ten-year plan so that Commanders can better hire and maintain personnel and manage the workload. Do away with Corps “business lines”: There are internally-created business lines for flood risk management, navigation, and the environment. As a result, bureaucratic barriers (“stovepipes”) have been created that have had particularly negative impacts on meeting environmental needs along the coast and on maintaining the Nation’s sand supply.
- Place the Customer at the Front and Center of Civil Works Planning and Implementation: I have great respect for the abilities of Corps planning, engineering, and project management personnel. Over nearly 40 years of working with them, I have seen the organizational burdens they work under. While WRDA ’86 set up a cost-sharing mechanism for all studies and projects, it’s a financial arrangement and not a partnership. I always told my local government clients that the Corps way of partnership was to ask what they wanted, take their money, and then drive the bus on whatever route the Corps determined would get to a destination that hopefully resembled their request. State and local governments are the customers, and the Corps (like a lot of other government service agencies) will need to rethink how they can better meet their customers’ needs.
I’ll have more to say about this subject in future posts, but I look forward to hearing from you. Whether or not we get a massive infrastructure package, the structural reforms I’ve recommended will need to be made. As the congressional committees begin addressing authorization and funding issues for next year, my final recommendation is that they hold a retreat. Speak to each other and bring in the folks at the Congressional Research Service and the General Accountability Office who are unbiased, knowledgeable experts on the process. It will be a day well-spent.