Do I Need a Consultant to Work with the Corps of Engineers?
Corps of Engineers Consulting
It's your project, too.
I first got involved with the Corps almost 40 years ago when a city needed help getting a beach nourishment project. Over my nearly four decades working with non-federal sponsors and the Corps of Engineers, I’ve been a part of many great project successes, but I’ve also watched from the sidelines as others have suffered a prolonged death that drains trust of the Corps and any remaining ambition of the non-federal sponsor.
There are a few reasons a Corps project might not work out, but often times there are ways to overcome the challenges projects can face in the planning stage. I’m fortunate to have helped over 100 local communities in securing authorizations and funding for studies, construction, and maintenance. From my experience working with the Corps, if you want a new Corps project, I wouldn’t advise doing it alone – Here’s why:
#1 - The Competition is Fierce
The annual federal budgeting process starts with the President’s budget proposal. The President’s budget is what Congress uses as a starting point to add money to meet the needs of America in the upcoming fiscal year. This year, the President requested the most of any president in history. It sounds good, but when you start with a relatively flat budget, then factor in the standard 5-7% water resources discount rate set by OMB, annual inflation, plus increased demand leading to higher costs, the Corps total annual budget hasn’t changed much in real dollars since 2010. This means the competition is fiercer than ever. If you’re looking to start a new Corps project, adding an experienced consultant to your team can help your project rank higher against its competitors, gain the support of Members of Congress, and greatly shorten the overall time it takes to receive federal funding.
#2 Know the Process
Working with the Corps is Complicated. The Corps’ rules and procedures are all on the internet, but there’s no index telling you where to find them. They could be in the form of letters, directives, policy guidance, planning manuals, or legal opinions, to name just a few. Plus, unlike other agencies that provide grants, the Corps is so distinct from other governmental agencies that it can be overwhelming to the state and local governments with whom it partners. In fact, the Corps can be intimidating to both new and longtime partners. That is where Coastal Strategies has excelled. We create effective partnerships for our clients so they can get the help they need. There are a few steps you can take to help ensure your project moves through the process as quickly as possible.
#3 - Get the Request Right the First Time
Whatever it is you are asking for, it is important to get the request right the first time because unless you’re seeking a project under one of the Corps programs, then it will have to be first recommended to Congress through the Section 7001 process, and then authorized in the Water Resources Development Act which is passed roughly every 2 years.
This may seem like a lot, but unlike other federal agencies, the Corps has no grant programs and initiates no actions on its own. The only way to get a Corps project is by request from a local or state government official. This usually involves a letter request, but it can come in any form. The worst way to start off with the Corps is by making a bad request.
#4 - Don’t Be Late.
If the deadlines for the milestones above are missed, you’ll have to wait another 2 years just to get started. Timing is critical, whether it be asking for a new authorization or trying to get one of the rare “new starts” allowed by Congress. Having worked the Corps process for several dozen clients, we are aware of what to expect, when to expect it, and how to avoid problems that may arise.
#5 - It's Your Project, Too
Almost all water resources project the Cops works on require a substantial cost-share from the non-federal partner. Here’s a fact that most non-federals forget: For any Corps study, you are an equal cost-share partner. Nevertheless, there is a strong tendency for the Corps to drive the bus, tell you what the destination is and how it’s going to get you there, all the while assuring it will get the work done on time and within budget. This heavily weighted partnership do not – and should not -- be that way. It’s your project, and a qualified consultant will make sure that the end result of the project is what you wanted and warn you of potential delays and cost increases before they occur so that you can plan ahead. I can think of a few local governments that put up $1.5 million and five years of staff time but missed a key requirement that either killed the project on its last bureaucratic lap or set it back years. Being an effective partner means you have someone on your team who knows the process and speaks the Corps language which is filled with acronyms and section numbers.
NOW, LET’S LOOK AT SOME EXAMPLES WHERE THE CORPS SAYS THAT IT CAN’T DO WHAT YOU ASK…
- Because Congress hasn’t authorized your project:
- Congress only authorizes Corps studies and project implementation in even-numbered years through the Water Resources Development Act. There’s a process for a state or local government to request an authorization, but if the request is not made to both the Corps, your congressional delegation, and the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works (ASA) and approved by all of them prior to the time Congress acts on its authorization bill, then you’ll have to wait another two years. We had a situation once when Congress and the ASA were supportive of a new project, but the Corps District didn’t want to proceed because a previous study had shown the project lacked sufficient benefits. We showed the district how to restudy the project, so all benefits were accounted for, and the project was eventually authorized and funded.
- Because Congress hasn’t yet funded the project:
- Every project study or construction project the Corps works on is specifically funded by Congress. In fact, the President proposes specific Corps projects he wants funded. From 2011 through 2020, Congress prohibited itself from adding its own project-specific funding, generally called earmarks. Projects need to get into the President’s earmarks or into those added by Congress. Your congressional delegation can help, but there are both congressional and administration staffers who need to be contacted to assure funding.
- Because the project doesn’t have sufficient benefits:
- Under law, every Corps project has to produce as much in benefits as it costs. The Corps uses its own models for estimate both costs and benefits. For coastal projects, the Corps focuses on monetizing damages the proposed project will avoid. However, the models often don’t show all the benefits provided by a project. Is there a critical evacuation route that might be affected? How about the value of the sewer and water infrastructure affected? The Corps is supposed to find all the economic, environmental, and societal factors it is allowed to take into consideration, but it may not because does so takes time
- Because the right questions weren’t asked:
- The Corps has several legislative authorities for studies and can even do some projects without a project-specific authorization or appropriation. Some district staffs (OR offices) are better than others about telling you what they can do for you. Is there sand from a nearby federal channel that you want to use? There’s an authority to do that. Do you have a project that includes both storm damage and environmental benefits and you want both counted? That’s a hard one for the Corps since it’s just now trying to develop a method to value environmental benefits, but others federal agencies do it. Perhaps you only need some planning or engineering assistance so you can do a project that isn’t appropriate for the Corps. There are Corps programs to provide state and local governments (as well as nonprofits) with technical assistance at half price.
These are just a few examples but getting help from the Army Corps of Engineers involves far more than getting funding. Coastal Strategies has the expertise, credibility, and record of success to function as extra staff for you that gets into the day-to-day trenches to work with the Corps as part of your team. We’ve seen numerous times when local governments have dropped the ball on a deadline, didn’t know how to ask for the help they needed, or were simply afraid to challenge the Corps. Remember, it's your project, too.