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Posted 9/22/2014

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By Jennifer Salak
U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District

Getting to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers' Civil Works Review Board is no quick, easy task- just ask Steve Rothe, USACE Project Manager for a proposed environmental restoration project along the Cache la Poudre River in Greeley, Colo. According to Rothe, “It has taken several years and a lot of hard work by the project team and the previous project manager to get the Cache la Poudre feasibility study completed and a report ready for the Civil Works Review Board.”

The Civil Works Review Board (CWRB), formerly called the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors, was created by Congress in 1902 to provide corporate-level review of all large-scale, complex USACE water resource projects that require congressional authorization for construction. The unbiased, six-member board reviews all aspects of a project, using a uniform set of criteria, and recommends whether or not the project moves forward to the Chief of Engineers, the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and ultimately Congress. These criteria were established to ensure all localities and projects receive equal and fair consideration.

The road to the CWRB can be long, as is the case with the proposed Cache la Poudre project. Following a major flood along the Cache la Poudre River in Greeley, Colo. in 1999, the city developed the Cache la Poudre Floodway Improvement Plan to outline strategies for reducing flood risk along the river; restoring the riparian and stream corridor; improving water quality; and providing recreation opportunities along the new channel. The city also contacted the Omaha District for assistance.

The Omaha District responded by conducting a General Investigations reconnaissance study in the affected area to examine water resources problems and opportunities. The reconnaissance study developed preliminary costs, benefits, and environmental impacts of some conceptual solutions, and concluded that there was sufficient federal interest in conducting a follow-on feasibility study.

Feasibility Study

Based on the results of the reconnaissance study, the feasibility study was initiated in 2005 with the city of Greeley serving as the cost-share sponsor. A feasibility study is more complex than a reconnaissance study in that problems and solutions are analyzed in greater detail and an actual project begins to take shape.

In the feasibility phase, ecosystem restoration became an important study subject and project objective, along with addressing flood risk management needs. Throughout the feasibility process, USACE team members from many different fields of expertise gathered data to develop solutions for reducing flood risk and restoring the ecosystem along a 17-mile reach of the Cache la Poudre from the confluence with the South Platte River upstream to just west of Greeley.

Some of the work done during the feasibility study included: hydraulic engineers running models to determine how high water would likely rise in the floodplain during future flood events; geotechnical engineers looking at soil conditions of existing berms and river banks, many of which are degraded by trees, rubble, asphalt and invasive species; and environmental resource specialists creating fish, wildlife and vegetation inventories and conducting wetland surveys. Once different solutions were developed, economists used specialized software to determine which ones were the most feasible (for ecosystem restoration this means the ones that provide the most benefit and cost the least for the federal government and the city of Greeley; for flood risk management this means the ones that provide the most net benefits).

Project Solutions

A flood risk management alternative comprised of several measures (elevating several houses, a buyout, dry flood proofing a few commercial structures, and a floodwall surrounding some public buildings) was found to be economically feasible; however, because the total cost of this solution was small enough to fit within an existing Continuing Authority program and would not require specific congressional authorization, that flood risk management plan was withdrawn from the final study proposal to be pursued under separate authority in the future. With that determination, this left the focus of the project on the proposed ecosystem restoration plan, with related recreation opportunities.

The proposed ecosystem restoration project would involve excavating and re-grading degraded areas along the Cache la Poudre floodplain and adding native wetland plants, shrubs and trees such as Colorado rush, chokeberry, Plains cottonwood and peachleaf willow. Environmental habitats restored would include riparian forest increasing from 80 acres to 198 acres and wetlands increasing from 11 acres to 179 acres. All told, a total of 446 acres in eight areas along an eight-mile reach of the Cache la Poudre River would be restored.

Recreation related to the ecosystem restoration would also be included in the project. Recreation features would be built at five of the eight restoration areas and would include roughly seven miles of trails; 0.5 miles of wetland boardwalks; and two trailheads with parking lots, shelters, and interpretive signage.

Next Steps

Now that the feasibility study is complete, Rothe and Omaha District leadership are busy preparing to present the Cache la Poudre project to the CWRB in November. This will be the first Omaha District project presented to the board since the headquarters-level review process was revamped in 2005. “This project is important not only to the sponsor, but also to the Nation,” said Rothe. “When we get up in front of the board in November, we have to tell that story.”

Besides the Omaha District, the city of Greeley will also present its support for the project at CWRB. Ecosystem restoration is important to Greeley – the city has invested considerable time and money into the development of the Cache la Poudre Floodway Improvement Plan and educating the public on the value of ecosystem and recreation opportunities. As a cost-share sponsor, Greeley has also invested over one million dollars into the feasibility study.

The project is equally important to the Nation because the Cache la Poudre is a critical habitat link for international migratory birds, which fall under protection of the Migratory Bird treaty Act. These riparian habitats, which are becoming increasingly scarce, provide birds and other native species with opportunities to migrate, breed, and rear their young. The Colorado office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife have also offered to speak on behalf of the project during the CWRB.

If approved by the board, the report will be sent out for final review at the national level by federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and by state agencies such as the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The report would then go to the Chief of Engineers, the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, OMB and finally Congress for possible authorization in a future Water Resources Development Act.

As required by the 2014 Water Resources Reform and Development Act, studies like the Cache la Poudre study will no longer take up to 10 years. Studies now must be completed through the Chief’s report within three years, except in rare instances; that means districts must complete their role in such studies within about two years. So, it may not be so long before Omaha District is again preparing for its next CWRB.