Corps of Engineers Water Resources Project Planning Procedures
An understanding of the processes, time lines, and procedures used in water resources project planning by the Corps of Engineers is essential in developing a constructive and timely review process. This chapter presents an overview of the types of studies undertaken by the Corps, guidance provided to and by the Corps in its planning activities, and key steps in the planning process. It concludes with an examination of points in the planning process where review could be beneficial. This chapter draws from a previous National Research Council report (NRC, 1999) that reviewed the Corps’ planning procedures.
TYPES OF STUDIES
The Corps of Engineers conducts a broad range of studies, including studies leading to new projects that require congressional authorization, studies involving evaluation and design of projects under continuing authorities, and reexaminations of existing projects. The range of studies is described in the Corps’ “Planning Guidance Notebook,” which contains specifics about Corps planning activities. It is published as Engineering Regulation (ER) 1105-2-100 (USACE, 2000).
ER 1105-2-100 defines three broad classes of Corps of Engineers water resources project planning studies and reports: (1) studies specifically authorized by Congress, the reports of which are submitted to Congress for initial authorization of projects, (2) studies of previously authorized, not-yet-constructed projects for which considerable time may have elapsed since authorization, including “general reevaluation studies” conducted to determine if significant changes in conditions affecting proposed projects have occurred since they were first authorized (reports
of these studies are not generally submitted to Congress), and (3) studies covering a range of topics. The third class of studies includes different types of studies.
Reallocation studies examine the effects of adjusting the allocation of storage in previously constructed reservoirs (these reallocations can be very complex and controversial). Post-authorization studies examine recommendations for changes to projects that have been previously authorized but not yet constructed (similar to general revaluation studies but limited to specific issues).
The Continuing Authorities Program grants the Secretary of the Army, acting through the Corps, to plan, design, and construct certain types of projects without project-specific authorization from Congress. Authority to conduct these activities is contained in various Congressional Rivers and Harbors and Flood Control Acts. The list of Continuing Authority programs has expanded in recent years, particularly for environmental programs.
This report focuses on review of planning studies for new projects that are formulated and evaluated under the reconnaissance-feasibility study process, and on studies of modifications to existing projects. Other studies listed above may be conducted in a manner similar to the reconnaissance-feasibility study process, and it may be desirable to include some of them within a review process.
Planning Studies for New Projects
Water resources project planning by the Corps of Engineers, including planning for cost-shared projects, is conducted in two phases, a reconnaissance study and a feasibility study (Figure 3–1). The Corps has long used this general approach, which was formalized with enactment of the federal Water Resources Development Act of 1986 (WRDA 86). Corps of Engineers water resources project planning studies are typically conducted by one of the Corps’ 41 District-level Offices.
A Corps of Engineers reconnaissance study is a broad assessment of a particular water resources problem in a particular location. Corps of Engineers reconnaissance studies are conducted to determine if there is a federal interest in addressing a given water resources problem or opportunity. These studies also assess the likelihood that solutions to a given water resources problem or opportunity would meet criteria for federal
cost-sharing, and they identify nonfederal interests that are willing to pay their share of the cost, which includes 50 percent of the cost of the feasibility study. Reconnaissance studies are 100 percent federally funded, are not to exceed $100,000, and are generally completed in about one year’s time (the NRC (1999) report estimates that reconnaissance studies between 1990 and 1996 averaged 13.5 months). Within these time and resource constraints, the level of detail in project design and evaluation clearly will be limited.
The reconnaissance study makes a recommendation as to whether a more detailed feasibility study should be conducted. Between 1986 and 1996, a total of 525 reconnaissance studies were completed; feasibility studies were initiated for 163 of these projects. That is, 31 percent of the
studies were initiated for 163 of these projects. That is, 31 percent of the reconnaissance studies resulted in initiation of a feasibility study (NRC, 1999).
For studies that move into the feasibility phase, the Corps and nonfederal sponsor negotiate a project study plan (PSP) and a feasibility cost-sharing agreement (FCSA) to arrange for financing of the feasibility study. The project study plan includes specific engineering and scientific studies and management activities. Although details of the project study plan vary from study to study, the Corps and local sponsor must agree on task descriptions (what needs to be done and at what level of detail), financial responsibilities (who pays for each task), and task milestones (time periods over which tasks are to be completed).
Feasibility studies are guided by two key documents. One is the 1983 Principles and Guidelines for Water and Related Land Resources Implementation Studies, or P&G (WRC, 1983). This document, adopted by the federal Water Resources Council in 1983, provides guidance for the Corps, as well as for the Bureau of Reclamation, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (key points of the P&G are summarized, and a link to the P&G is provided, on the internet at http://www.usace.army.mil/inet/functions/cw/cecwp/cecwp_temp/pg.htm ; last accessed July 8, 2002). The other key Corps planning document is ER 1105-2-100 (USACE, 2000), which contains the P&G and provides advice on how the P&G is to be implemented. The Digest of Water Resources Policies and Authorities, guidance letters, and a series of engineering regulations (ERs) and engineering circulars (ECs) provide additional guidance.
The planning process described in the P&G document includes six steps:
specify problems and opportunities,
inventory and forecast conditions,
formulate alternative plans,
evaluate effects of alternative plans,
compare alternative plans, and
select recommended plan.
These steps are not intended to be strictly sequential, and it is understood that there may be iterative feedback within these steps as more information is gathered and analyzed during a planning study. The Corps
usually begins Steps 3 and 4 within the first several months of the feasibility study, but the timing of these activities depends on the scale and complexity of the problem. At this stage, the Corps conducts project design analyses (including engineering and hydrologic studies) and estimates project benefits and costs. When a Corps District Office is prepared to present the alternative plans, an Alternative Formulation Briefing (AFB) is usually conducted.
The Alternative Formulation Briefing is held to facilitate early Washington-level acceptance of the plan formulation and selection process, the identified preferred plan, and the definition of federal and nonfederal responsibilities. The goal of the AFB is to allow a Corps District Office to release a draft report to the public concurrent with Washington-level policy compliance review of the report (see USACE, 2001). Regulations do not require an Alternative Formulation Briefing, but Corps District Offices are urged to hold this briefing, and that is the usual practice. At that time, the District Office is expected to address policy issues identified by the Division, District, or Corps Headquarters and others. Local sponsors and other interested parties, including technical experts, participate, and the public is invited.
After the Alternative Formulation Briefing, the Corps’ District Office prepares the draft feasibility report and related environmental assessments or impact statements. Once completed, the draft feasibility report is made public, is widely distributed, and is subject to a mandatory 45-day public review and comment period. At the same time the draft report is made public, it is sent to Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C., where it is reviewed by the Corps and other relevant federal agencies (e.g., the Environmental Protection Agency). The Corps responds to the review and to public comments in its revised feasibility report. When and if the project sponsor and the Corps agree on a final plan, the Corps’ Division Engineer will sign a public notice recommending project approval.
The final step in the formal planning process is approval of the final feasibility study by the Chief of Engineers. This approval is in the form of a five- or six-page letter to the Secretary of the Army. Figure 3–1 illustrates the time line of the idealized Corps water resources project planning process.
COMMENTARY: INSERTING REVIEW INTO THE PLANNING PROCESS
There are several points in the planning process where review might improve a Corps planning study. Review could be initiated at any of the points along the time line of the steps and activities described above and shown in Figure 3–1. However, intervention is likely to be more effective at some points than at others, and steps may have to be added to the process to make review more effective. Note, however, that initiating review at the outset of the reconnaissance study would hold little promise for improving the process, as there would be few details of the project analysis at that point, thereby providing little documentation for a review team to analyze.
The first milestone at which review might be useful in the planning process probably would be at the Alternative Formulation Briefing. An advantage of waiting until this briefing is that the process would have progressed to a point where substantial material would be available for review. Problems and opportunities would have been identified, forecasts of future conditions would have been made, alternatives would have been formulated, and estimates of benefits and costs would be available. A disadvantage of waiting until the Alternative Formulation Briefing is that substantial resources would already have been expended.
Critical first steps in the process are the identification of problems, the formulation of a broad range of alternatives, and the selection of analytical methods for forecasting future conditions and estimating effects of alternatives. Those steps were critical in the Upper Mississippi River-Illinois Waterway draft feasibility study (Box 1–1). If a synopsis of the scoping process and proposed analytical techniques had been available early in that study, review could have provided guidance that might have averted questions raised later.
Review after Step 5 in the six-step P&G planning process (described on p. 28)—after alternatives have been compared and before selection of the recommended plan—would appear essential if the Corps is to benefit from the review. Although that comes late in the process, the P&G document explains the iterative nature of the planning process. Feedback is inherent within the process, and if the Corps is to take advantage of feedback before the plan is finalized, review should be made an integral part of project planning.
However, an issue that arises in cases where a review is initiated while data-gathering, study, and analysis are still underway and conclusions have not yet been formulated is that the findings of the reviewers could become “directives” in that they might imply or call for modifications or additional studies and may suggest new conclusions and recom-
mendations. One result is that the reviewers themselves then have assumed the role of advisors as well as reviewers, thus introducing bias and potential conflict in their ability to provide objective review later in the project. This dilemma raises the question of whether a completely independent review can come before the end of the planning process unless different review panels are appointed at each review stage.1