A Citizen’s Guide to the Corps of Engineers

American Rivers, in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation, created this Citizen’s Guide as a resource for individuals and organizations working to improve the way the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) plans, constructs, operates, and issues permits for projects affecting the nation’s rivers, coasts, and wetlands. The guide provides a detailed overview of the Corps and of the laws, policies, and strategies that can be used to stop or improve destructive projects and permits and to promote restoration and protection of our vital water resources.

The Corps is the primary federal manager of the nation’s water resources. The Corps builds and maintains much of the nation’s navigation and flood damage reduction infrastructure and regulates the issuance of Clean Water Act dredge and fill and other permits to the private sector. Since its formation more than 225 years ago, the Corps has significantly transformed our nation’s rivers and coasts, constructing 11,000 miles of inland waterway navigation channels, 8,500 miles of levees and seawalls, and more than 600 dams. The agency also dredges hundreds of millions of cubic yards of material each year from the nation’s rivers and harbors. Since 1990, when Congress added environmental protection to the Corps’ mission areas, the Corps’ civil works portfolio has grown to include some of the nation’s largest and most controversial restoration projects.

While Corps projects have produced some positive economic benefits for the nation, they have also caused significant environmental harm. The environmental damage has been so great that Corps projects are recognized as one of the leading reasons that North America’s freshwater species are disappearing five times faster than land based species and as quickly as rainforest species. Large-scale structural projects planned and constructed by the Corps have also increased flood risks for many communities, reduced water quality, impaired recreational opportunities, and damaged economies that rely on a healthy environment.

As the nation saw all too clearly when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, at its worst, flawed Corps planning can have deadly consequences. Corps projects destroyed coastal wetlands that would have buffered Katrina’s storm surge, funneled and intensified that surge into New Orleans, and encouraged development in high-risk areas. With this stage set, the Corps sealed the city’s fate when it used flawed designs to build the levee and floodwall system that was supposed to protect the city — but clearly did not. Ongoing operation of Corps projects can also lead to devastating results. A U.S. District Court recently ruled that the Corps’ “gross negligence” in maintaining the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a Corps-built navigation channel, also played a major role in the breaching of many New Orleans area levees during Hurricane Katrina.

During the past decade, the National Academy of Sciences, the Government Accountability Office, the Army Inspector General, federal agencies, and independent experts have issued a flood of studies highlighting a pattern of stunning flaws in Corps project planning and urging substantial changes to the Corps’ planning process. Two National Academy of Sciences panels and the Department of the Army Inspector General concluded that the Corps has an institutional bias for approving large and environmentally damaging structural projects, and that its planning process lacks adequate environmental safeguards. Less environmentally damaging, less costly, nonstructural measures that would result in the same or better outcomes are routinely ignored or given short shrift. This results in projects that are unnecessarily destructive, costly, and, in many cases, simply not needed.

In 2006, the Government Accountability Office told Congress that recent Corps studies were “fraught with errors, mistakes, and miscalculations, and used invalid assumptions and outdated data.” The problems were so pervasive that the studies “did not provide a reasonable basis for decision-making.” The Government Accountability Office also told Congress that the problems at the Corps were “systemic in nature” and “prevalent throughout the Corps’ Civil Works portfolio.”

In 2007, Congress enacted important Corps Reform legislation designed to address some of these problems. These reforms, which require modernization of the Corps’ planning guidelines, impose strict mitigation requirements on Corps projects and require outside independent peer review of costly or controversial Corps projects are discussed at length in Chapter 2. Ensuring strict compliance with the Corps Reform provisions and with the environmental protection laws and policies discussed in Chapters 3 and 6 will do much to improve Corps projects and permits.

As communities and wildlife suffer the floods, droughts, storms, and increasing sea levels fueled by climate change, it is more important than ever to improve Corps projects and permitting decisions. The Corps must begin immediately to aggressively protect and restore the nation’s rivers, wetlands, and coastlines — resources that provide the first line of defense against flooding, improve water quality, recharge groundwater, provide outstanding recreational opportunities, provide vital habitat for fish and wildlife, and are essential for making our communities more resilient to the effects of climate change.