Federal water projects and steps to permit approvals


The National Waterways Conference (waterways.org) does excellent work promoting Federal policies that sustain this nation’s water resources. Recently, NWC reached out to Dawson & Associates to ask about Federal infrastructure legislation in Congress. Our longtime colleague Rob Vining, who was Chief of the Civil Works Programs, Management Division at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before joining Dawson, wrote an essay for NWC about infrastructure water project sponsorship and project approval.


NWC has graciously allowed us to repost Rob’s essay:


With a vote of 69-30, the U.S. Senate earlier this month passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill to fund improvements in our roads, bridges, pipes, ports and broadband. As President Biden said after the vote, “America has often had the greatest prosperity and made the most progress when we invest in America itself. And that’s what this infrastructure bill does.”

The bill is now in the U.S. House where approval seems likely but is not guaranteed.

Given the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ pivotal role in implementing infrastructure projects, it is important that anyone looking for project approval understands the Corps’ approval process. First, all Corps projects are developed at the request of, and in partnership with, local sponsors, or partners, who share project costs. Partners, particularly new partners with no prior experience will benefit from learning how to engage with the Corps and how to best inform the Corps’ decision-making processes.


If you are one of the lucky ones getting a Corps project, here are several best practices to get your project successfully and quickly off the ground.

At the heart of the Corps’ development and management of the Nation’s water resources infrastructure is its robust “planning” process. That methodology ensures the Corps evaluates alternative solutions to critical needs, determines the Federal interest in solving the identified problem, and ultimately makes recommendations to the Administration and Congress on how best to proceed.

Apart from inland navigation studies, all Civil Works planning studies, require a Local Sponsor to study and fund at least 50% of the total study cost. In short, Local Sponsor equals “Partner.” Still, both parties must work in tandem to achieve successful outcomes. Here are a few questions to consider as Local Sponsors navigate the planning roadmap:


  • Do you have a true partnership with the Corps of Engineers? The Corps will form a study team and the Local Sponsor should participate in this team. This team will set the project direction including possible alternatives. For the team to be effective, Local Sponsor officials must work cooperatively and closely with the Corps. This will build a foundation of trust that could become crucial later on, especially if problems develop.


  • Have you properly identified the problem and visualized possible solutions? A key component of the study team’s responsibility is to identify both the problem and the parameters of the problem that you want to solve. Active Local Sponsor participation helps assure this study team addresses the correct problems and finds the most viable solutions. Importantly, don’t simply rely solely on Corps officials to define this problem and establish all the parameters. Get in the study process early and stay with it.


  • Have you incorporated ASA(CW) direction to include regional and non-quantitative benefits into the planning analysis? This new guidance, issued on January 5, 2021, is a significant change from past Corps guidance that focused the analysis of project benefits on maximizing the National Economic Development alternative. If ASA(CW) continues with this guidance, Corps officials and Local Sponsors will need to study possible consequences. The Corps will also have to work with OMB and the Administration to address regional and social benefits into budgetary decisions. (everything I have heard is that this guidance may be replaced when the new ASA comes in, have you heard similar?)


  • Do you know the key milestones necessary for project authorization? The Corps expectation is to complete a feasibility study within three years except for large regional studies that receive prior approval for a longer duration. Within this time frame, there are significant milestones necessary to complete the study. An example is completion of the final Chief’s Report to Congress, which is normally the basis for project authorization. Usually, a Chief’s Report needs to be completed and approved through the Administration and submitted to Congress by August of a year that a biannual Water Resources Development Act is being considered, so that the proposed project will be considered by Congress for Authorization. Establishing the key milestone dates as a team early in the planning study, and ultimately meeting those milestones, is vital.


  • Are you willing to keep an open mind as to the best solution? The Corps’ planning process is based on objective analysis driving the planning process rather than a pre-selection of a solution driving the analysis. Keeping an open mind to consider all viable alternatives is the only way to ensure a viable and acceptable solution.


  • Do you have a robust public outreach program? Any plan to address a water resource need is likely to have considerable public interest. Keeping the public and special interests informed as the study progresses will go a long way toward ensuring the completed study has public support.


  • Are you keeping local and Federal officials up to date of the Study’s progress? As with a robust public outreach program, developing and executing an active program to keep public agencies and officials informed on the progress and objectives of a study is essential.


  • Are you looking for shortcuts? Please stop, there are no shortcuts. The Corps of Engineers rigorously follows its planning methodology consistent with Federal law and policy. Further, studies also need to follow State and local requirements. Meticulously following the planning process is the most efficient path to a successful study.


  • Do you have a funding strategy for the non-Federal share of project costs? One major element of a Corps feasibility study is a financial plan. Planners must understand the likely overall cost of the construction and the project sustainment costs and how the project will be financed). The financial plan should be developed early so that it’s clear any alternatives considered can be implemented successfully.

By carefully considering questions such as these, project sponsors can improve the likelihood of having their needs addressed.


Rob Vining Senior Advisor

Prior to joining Dawson & Associates in 2012, Rob was the National Water Practice Leader for HNTB Corporation and prior to that, served as Chief of the Civil Works Programs, Management Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dawson & Associates.