The Civil Works Program of the Army Corps of Engineers: A Primer
CRS Report for Congress
The Civil Works Program of the
Army Corps of Engineers: A Primer
Nicole T. Carter
Analyst in Environmental Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Betsy A. Cody
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
At the direction of Congress primarily through Water Resources Development Acts
(WRDAs), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (an agency within the Department of
Defense) undertakes water resources projects. The agency’s civil works mission has
expanded beyond its original responsibility of improving and maintaining navigable
channels; the mission now includes flood control, emergency and disaster response,
environmental restoration, municipal water infrastructure, and other activities. The non-
federal sponsors and the federal government (primarily through the annual Energy and
Water Development Appropriations Acts) share the cost of most Corps projects and
activities. This report outlines the agency’s organization, project development process,
civil works appropriations, and evolution of its responsibilities.
Corps of Engineers and Its Civil Works Program
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) is an agency in the Department of
Defense that has military and civilian responsibilities. The military program provides
engineering, construction, and environmental management services for Department of
Defense agencies. Under its civil works program at the direction of Congress, the Corps
plans, constructs, operates, and maintains a wide range of water resources projects. A
military Chief of Engineers oversees the Corps’ civil and military operations and reports
on civil works matters to an Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works. The Corps
operates as a military organization with a largely civilian workforce (34,600 civilian and
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
and 41 district offices.1 Projects are largely planned at the district level and approved at
the division and headquarters levels.
The Corps’ oldest civil responsibilities are creating navigable channels and flood
control projects. Navigation projects include river deepening, channel widening, lock
expansion, dam operations, and dredged material disposal. Flood control projects are
intended to reduce riverine and coastal storm damage; these projects range from levees
and floodwalls to dams and river channelization. Many navigation and flood control
projects are multi-purpose — that is, they provide water supply, recreation, and
hydropower in addition to navigation or flood control.
In recent decades, Congress has given the Corps responsibilities in the areas of
environmental restoration and infrastructure and other non-traditional activities, such as
disaster relief and remediation of formerly used nuclear sites. Environmental restoration
activities involve wetlands restoration and environmental mitigation activities for Corps
facilities. Environmental infrastructure refers to municipal water and wastewater facilities.
The agency’s regulatory responsibility for navigable waters extends to issuing permits for
private actions that might affect wetlands and other waters of the United States.2 The
economic and environmental impact of Corps projects and the agency’s regulatory
activities can be significant locally and regionally and at times are quite controversial.
Project Development Process
The Corps currently follows a two-phase planning process that is intended to
determine if a water resources project warrants federal investment and inform
congressional authorization decisions. Project development is directed by agency
guidance and the Principles and Guidelines for Water and Related Resources
Implementation Studies (P&G). The P&G were prepared by the Water Resources Council
(WRC) in 1983 to guide federal water resource development.3 Projects generally
originate from a community (e.g., citizens or businesses) or local government entity
requesting assistance with a water resource need that is beyond its capability to alleviate.
The Corps generally requires two types of congressional authority to initiate a study
— study authorization, then appropriations.4 A study authority allows the Corps to
1 Division and district maps available at [http://www.usace.army.mil/divdistmap.html].
2 Sections 10 and 13 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 (22 U.S.C. 407) require that a permit
be obtained from the Corps for alteration or obstruction of and refuse discharge in U.S. navigable
water. The Corps also has regulatory responsibilities under other laws, notably Section 404 of
the Clean Water Act (33 U.S.C. 1344). Since the mid-1960s, court decisions and administrative
actions have altered the jurisdictional reach of the Corps’ regulatory program.
3 WRC was established pursuant to the 1965 Water Resources Planning Act (42 U.S.C. 1962-b2);
it is currently dormant due to a lack of funding.
4 Technical assistance and some small projects can be conducted without obtaining a project
specific authorization or appropriations., through the Corps’ programmatic authorizations known
as Continuing Authorities Programs,. These projects of limited size that have defined scope
consistent with one of the programmatic authorization can be performed at the Corps’ discretion
based on the availability of program funds. The authorized programs include activities for beach
investigate a problem and determine if there is a federal interest in proceeding further.
If the Corps has performed a study in the geographic area before, a new study can be
authorized by a resolution (known commonly as a “survey resolution”) of either the
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee or the Senate Environment and Public
Works Committee. If the Corps has not previously investigated the area, the study needs
to be authorized in an act of Congress, typically a Water Resources Development Act
(WRDA), which often are considered biennially.5 The majority of Corps studies are
currently authorized by survey resolutions.
Once authorized, appropriations for Corps studies are sought through the annual
Energy and Water Development Appropriations Acts. The objective of Corps studies is
to guide the decision to authorize a Corps project for construction. Early in the study
process, the Corps assesses the level of interest and support of non-federal entities that
may be potential sponsors. Non-federal sponsors generally are state, tribal, county, or
local agencies (e.g., levee district) or governments that join the Corps in the effort.
Based on the results of the study, the Chief of Engineers may sign a final
recommendation on the project, known as the Chief’s Report. In recent years, Congress
has used a favorable Chief’s Report as the basis for authorizing projects. Once authorized,
federal funds for project construction can be sought through the annual Energy and Water
Development Appropriations bills. For more information on the phases of the project
development process, see CRS Report RL32064, Army Corps of Engineers Water
Resources Activities: Authorization and Appropriations, by Nicole T. Carter.
How to allocate the cost of Corps projects among non-federal sponsors and the
federal government has been debated for decades. WRDA 1986 significantly increased
local cost-share requirements; some subsequent WRDAs made further adjustments in
cost-sharing.6 Under current requirements, reconnaissance studies are entirely a federal
expense. Local sponsors pay 50% of the cost for feasibility studies, except for inland
waterways (100% federal responsibility).7 The division of federal and non-federal
financial responsibilities for construction and operation and maintenance (O&M) vary by
project purpose as shown in Table 1. In most cases, cost-sharing for pre-construction
planning and engineering is determined using the construction requirements in Table 1.
erosion, navigation, flood control, streambank and shoreline protection, snagging and clearing,
modifications to existing projects for the benefit of the environment, and ecosystem restoration.
5 These acts are commonly distinguished from each other by including a reference to the year of
enactment; for example, WRDA 1986 refers to the act passed in 1986.
6 In addition to authorizing planning and construction projects, Congress uses WRDA to
establish policies for the Corps’ civil works projects, such as cost-sharing requirements.
7 Local cost-sharing for the feasibility phase is not required for studies of navigation
improvements to the inland waterway system (see 33 U.S.C. 2215 a).
Table 1. Cost-Share Requirements for Corps Projects
Federal ShareFederal Share of
Coastal Ports —
<20 ft. harbor80%*100%
>45 ft. harbor40%*50%
Municipal and Industrial Water Supply0%0%
Agricultural Water Supply65%***0%
Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction65%0%
(except Periodic [Beach] Nourishment)(50%)(0%)
Aquatic Plant Controlnot applicable50%
Congressionally Authorized Projects65%0%
Beneficial Uses of Dredged Material and75%0%
Modification for Improvement of
Source: 33 U.S.C. 2211-2215.
* These percentages reflect that the non-federal sponsors pay 10% of the cost of the general navigation
features of the project over a period not to exceed 30 years.
** 50% is paid by federal appropriations, and 50% by the Inland Waterway Trust Fund.
*** For the 17 western states where reclamation law applies, irrigation costs are funded by the Corps but
ultimately repaid by non-federal users.
Civil Works Appropriations
Congress provides federal appropriations to the Corps primarily for specific projects,
rather than through programmatic authorizations.8 Fiscal priorities and public attitudes
in recent decades have produced a decline in federal funding for water resources
8 In addition to the activities that the Corps performs using appropriations that it receives through
direct federal appropriations, the Corps performs reimbursable work for Department of Defense
agencies, other federal agencies (e.g., U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), local
governments, tribes, U.S. territories, foreign governments, and international organizations. In
FY2002, this work totaled $953 million. More information on the Interagency and International
Program of the Corps is available at [http://www.hq.usace.army.mil/cemp/cn/iishmpg.htm].
development projects generally. For example from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s, the
annual funding for the Corps’ construction account fell from an average of $4.5 billion
to $1.8 billion (in 2004 dollars).9 Another measure of the decreased emphasis on water
resources development is that the agency’s civil works budget fell from more than 1% of
federal discretionary spending in the mid-1970s to between 0.6% and 0.5% since 2000.10
Funding for the civil works program has often been a contentious issue between the
Administration and Congress, with final appropriations typically providing more funding
than requested regardless of which political party controls the White House and Congress.
The Corps generally maintains strong congressional support because of the direct water
resource benefits and indirect economic and political benefits of its projects.
Evolution of Civil Works Mission
Navigation and Flood Control (1802-1950s). In the 19th Century, the Corps’
mission evolved into civil and military building for the nation. In 1824, Congress passed
legislation using military engineers for planning roads and canals to move goods and
people. In 1850, Congress directed the Corps to engage in its first planning exercise —
flood control for the lower Mississippi River. The modern era of federal flood control
emerged with the Flood Control Act of 1936 (P.L. 74-738), which declared flood control
as a “proper” federal activity and in the national interest. During the 1920s, Congress
expanded the Corps’ ability to incorporate hydropower into multi-purpose projects and
authorized the agency to undertake comprehensive surveys to establish river-basin
development plans. The 1944 Flood Control Act (33 U.S.C. 708) significantly augmented
the Corps’ involvement in large multi-purpose projects. The Flood Control Act of 1950
(33 U.S.C. 701n) began the Corps’ emergency operations through authorization for flood
preparedness and emergency operations.11 The Water Supply Act of 1958 (43 U.S.C.
390b) gave the Corps authority to include storage for municipal and industrial water
supply in reservoir projects at 100% local cost.
Changing Priorities (1960-1986). By the late 1960s, construction of major water
works had declined. Changing national priorities and local needs, increasing construction
costs, and completed projects at most prime locations decreased the attractiveness of
water projects. Water supply for traditional off-stream uses, such as domestic,
commercial, industrial, and agricultural uses, was increasingly in direct competition with
in-stream uses, such as recreation, fisheries, and wildlife habitat. From 1970 to 1985,
Congress authorized no major water projects, scaled back several authorized projects, and
passed laws that altered project operations and water delivery programs to protect the
environment. The 1970s marked a transformation in Corps project planning. The1969
National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (16 U.S.C.
9 CRS updated Information provided by the Corps to Senator Voinovich at his request; available
in Senator George V. Voinovich, “Statement,” Corps of Engineers Mission and Backlog of
Projects, Hearing before Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Senate Committee
on Environment and Public Works, May 16, 2000.
10 Office of Management and Budget, Historic Tables, Budget of the United States, Fiscal Year
11 Emergency response activities are also conducted under the Disaster Relief Act of 1974 (42
U.S.C. 5121), also known as the Stafford Disaster and Emergency Assistance Act.
1531) required the Corps to consider environmental impacts, increase public participation
in planning, and consult with other federal agencies. Executive orders (EO 11988 and EO
11990) united the goals of reducing flood losses and environmental damage by
recognizing the value of wetlands and required federal agencies to evaluate potential
effects of actions on flood plains and to minimize impacts on wetlands.
Environmental Mission and Local Responsibility (1986-present).
Congress fundamentally transformed the ground rules for Corps water project planning
and funding through WRDA 1986 (33 U.S.C. 2211) by establishing new cost-share
formulas, resulting in greater financial and decision-making roles for local stakeholders.
WRDA 1986 reestablished the tradition of a biennial omnibus authorization bill.
Congress has since enacted WRDAs in 1988, 1990, 1992, 1996, 1999, and 2000. WRDA
1986 also provided the Corps with authority to determine if changes can be made in
existing structures or operations to improve environmental quality. WRDA 1990 (33
U.S.C. 1252, 2316) explicitly expanded the Corps’ mission to include environmental
protection and increased the Corps’ responsibility for contamination cleanup, dredged
material disposal, and hazardous waste management. WRDA 1992 (33 U.S.C. 2326)
authorized the Corps to use the “spoils” from dredging in implementing projects for
protecting , restoring, and creating aquatic and ecologically-related habitats, including
wetlands. WRDA 1996 (33 U.S.C. 2330) gave the Corps the authority to undertake
aquatic ecosystem restoration projects. While the Corps has been involved with numerous
environmental restoration projects in recent years, WRDA 2000 approved a restoration
program for the Florida Everglades that represented the agency’s first multi-year, multi-
billion dollar effort of this type. These legislative changes have given the Corps
environmental responsibility beyond its traditional water resources development projects.