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Remembering Bill Gianelli

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

Our longtime colleague Bill Gianelli passed away on March 30 in Monterey, California.

Bill was one of the original members of our firm in 1997 but even before that, many of us had the chance to work with him and learn from him. In 1981, Ronald Reagan nominated Bill as Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works. That put him in charge of the Army Corps of Engineers, with which he had served in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Bill oversaw the Corps’ responsibility for waterways development, flood control and improvement of ports.

Bill served as Assistant Secretary from 1981 to 1984. During this time, he sought to make the Corps, and state and local government, more sensitive to budgetary constraints for flood control and other water management projects, especially those sought by Members of Congress for their own districts and states. He also pressed, eventually with some success—but less than he would have liked—to shift some funding obligations from Washington to state and local government.

I was fortunate and honored to be Bill’s successor as Assistant Secretary in 1984 and it was a great tribute to his vision that two years later, Congress adopted much of Bill’s cost-shifting vision in the Water Resources Development Act of 1986. The rationale was two-fold: to reduce the cost to the federal budget and to have the communities that benefited from those projects help pay for them through state and local taxation.

As civilian chief of the Corps, Bill also helped President Reagan end a freeze on starting major water projects that the Carter Administration had imposed in 1977. In his tough-minded approach, Bill also streamlined the regulatory process to compress the time for approving permit applications, thereby weeding out unqualified projects earlier in the planning process.

Bill and his staff devised a new planning framework for water projects that emphasized what they could contribute to economic growth and that de-emphasized environmental concerns. They also proposed the cost-shifting “reforms” that diminished the impact of new projects on the federal budget by requiring localities and states to contribute.

Bill also insisted that the Corps would not seek Congressional funding for projects unless prospective benefits exceeded projected costs. The imposition of cost-benefit discipline displeased some in Congress whose hopes of delivering a federally financed project to their constituents were dashed. Bill applied cost-benefit analysis not only to flood control and reservoirs but for deepening ports and inland waterways.

In a 1985 interview, Bill explained his approach to financing water projects: “…the minute you ask people to contribute, you have an automatic screening device which is far better than any analysis that could be made by the technicians.”

Because the Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction over Arlington National Cemetery, whose graves Bill could see from his Pentagon office, he was able to advance planning for the cemetery’s new Visitors Center, which opened in 1990.

President Reagan also appointed Bill as chairman of the Panama Canal Commission, which managed the canal jointly with Panama. Bill served as chair until 1989, during a challenging transition which he managed with expertise.

Prior to his 1981 appointment, Bill headed California’s Department of Water Resources under then-Governor Reagan. As Governor-elect in 1966, Reagan had tapped Bill even though Bill was a Democrat. Bill would recall that when Gov. Reagan phoned him to offer the job, it was their first conversation. “I didn’t know him before,” he once told me, “He made it quite clear that he knew very little about water issues in California, and I would be his water man.”

As director, Bill supervised completion of the first phase of California’s multi-decade State Water Project (SWP) for diverting fresh water from northern California rivers to southern California, where population growth was driving rising water consumption.

Bill was born in Stockton, CA in 1919. His father was in the produce business and his mother was a seamstress and homemaker.

He received a B.S. degree in civil engineering from the University of California (Berkeley) in 1941. An ROTC cadet, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. The Army summoned him to active duty that summer.

During the War, Bill served in the Pacific theater directing troops in building airfields, water supply facilities, and other military installations in Hawaii, Saipan, Okinawa and, after the war, Korea. On Saipan, Gianelli was guiding native children to safety in a cave when a Japanese bullet grazed his lip. He was awarded the Purple Heart Medal. He was released from active duty in December 1945 with the rank of major.

RIP, Bill. All of us will deeply miss you.

Robert Dawson



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


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