Today, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages thousands of water resource projects across the country. The Corps generates hydropower, supplies water to cities and industry, regulates development in navigable waters, restores aquatic ecosystems, assists in national emergencies, provide navigation, flood risk reduction, ecosystem restoration, and is the Nation’s largest provider of recreation. As complicated as many of these sound, each of these missions began as a planning study.
The Corps, the Federal government's largest water resources development and management agency, began its water resources program in the 1800s. Since then, the Army Corps has been involved in supporting river navigation and providing flood risk reduction for communities located near rivers, lakes, and coastlines..
Planning studies involve a structured approach to solve water resource challenges by an interdisciplinary team of professionals made up of planners, project managers, engineers, economists, and specialists in environmental resources, cultural resources, tribal outreach, real estate, and public involvement.
A study is initiated when a community requests assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to address a water resources problem, such as flooding, degraded ecosystem habitat, or water supply.
Within the Omaha District, these studies are led by members of the Planning Branch. The Planning Branch, led by Brad Thompson, solves water resource problems by working with cities, communities, counties, states, and tribes as well as other Army Corps offices, and other federal agencies. Some of the most common projects the Planning Branch leads are for flood risk management, bank stabilization, restoring degraded ecosystems, dam safety studies, water supply reallocation, and technical assistance.
“We strive to assist non-federal agencies and organizations with water resource problems,” said Thompson.
The Planning Branch studies generally fall into three different categories of projects: general investigation studies, continuing authorities program projects, and technical assistance studies.
General investigations (GI) are specifically directed by Congress to address some of the nation’s largest and most complex water resources challenges. Recommended plans that come out of these types of studies are not limited in terms of the scope of construction, and must be submitted back to Congress for authorization to construct the project.
GI feasibility studies are cost-shared between the federal government and a non-federal sponsor. Historically, some of these projects took many years and millions of dollars to complete. However, Congressional legislation and policy revisions instituted over the past several years have resulted in most studies being completed within three years and within a total budget of $3 million.
This policy, known as planning modernization, incorporates risk-informed decision and vertical integration to complete studies within three years, for a cost of three million dollars or less, and with three levels of integrated review within USACE prior to completion (commonly referred to as the 3x3x3 rule).
There are currently three active GI studies being conducted by Omaha District: Adams and Denver Counties, Colorado (multi-purpose ecosystem restoration and flood risk management); Bear Creek Reallocation, Colorado (water supply reallocation); and Papillion Creek Basin, Nebraska (flood risk management). Within the Omaha District, GI projects are managed in Planning Branch through the completion of the feasibility study, and are typically transitioned to Civil Works Branch during the design and construction phase once Congress has authorized the project and appropriated funds.
Continuing authorities program studies are for small-to-medium sized projects with total project costs for recommended solutions limited to $15 million or less, depending on which continuing authorities program authority is being used. Continuing authorities program projects fall into one of nine separate Congressional authorities each established for a specific purpose, and each authority has maximum federal participation limit.
Congress established the continuing authorities program authorities to pre-authorize construction of projects that are of limited scope and complexity, and therefore could be planned, designed, and implemented in a more streamlined manner.
CAP Projects require a feasibility study which generally follows the same guidance as GI feasibility studies in terms of cost-sharing and evaluating alternatives, and recommending a project for construction. However, once the feasibility report is completed and approved, the project can move directly into design and construction without having to be submitted to Congress for authorization.
Upon transitioning to design and implementation the project cost-sharing changes to generally 65% federal and 35% non-federal, with the sponsor also being responsible to provide any lands necessary for the construction of the project, and also agreeing to operate the maintain the project once construction is complete. There are currently twelve active continuing authorities program projects in various stages of study or implementation being conducted by the Omaha District. Within the Omaha District the Planning Branch has “cradle-to-grave” management responsibility for all CAP projects from initiation through completion of construction closeout.
The final and smallest study conducted by the Planning Branch is the technical assistance studies which are typically conducted under the Planning Assistance to States program. Through this type of study the Army Corps can provide assistance with a wide array of water resources problems. Planning Assistance to States studies can range in value from approximately ten-thousand dollars through a few hundred thousand dollars, and are cost-shared 50-50 between the Army Corps and the non-federal sponsor.
The scope of PAS studies vary greatly based on the specific requirements requested by the sponsor. Common types of PAS studies include updating floodplain mapping and characterizing flood risks for communities or entire watersheds; developing conceptual plans for addressing flooding, erosion, or other issues; and conducting technical analysis of specific issues like groundwater or water quality. There are currently six active PAS projects being conducted by the Omaha District, and all of these studies are being led by Planning Branch. One of these studies is an investigation of stream erosion, incision, and stability along the Papillion Creek and its tributaries in Douglas and Sarpy Counties of Nebraska.
One of the recent study successes the Planning Branch has completed is the Yellowstone Intake project which will allow Pallid Sturgeon, an endangered species of fish, to utilize a constructed bypass channel to move upstream past a previously established intake-diversion dam along the Yellowstone River. This project should help play a key role in recovery of the population in the upper part of the basin.
Planning is an essential component of building a strong civil works program. Planning is the first step in developing civil works projects to assist sponsors with meeting needs and contributing to national priorities (safety, flood risk, environmental, water supply, energy, sustainability, resiliency, etc.). The plans developed in the feasibility phase studies lay out the road map for the ultimate success of the projects themselves. With a mission set that is so broad, planners in Omaha have to be strong leaders capable of leading interdisciplinary team members through the formulation, evaluation, and comparison of alternatives; competent managers responsible for establishing and tracking the scope, schedule, and budget for a project; and effective communicators and writers responsible to maintaining sponsor relationships, reporting progress, and integrating all documentation into high quality final feasibility reports for approval by higher headquarters.
“Being a member of the Planning Branch team requires individuals with great skills and a technical background”, said Thompson. “They have to work well with other agencies and communicate well both internally and externally.”