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Significant Changes Expected for Corps of Engineers Water Project Procedures

For nearly a year, there has been anticipation surrounding a major update to Army Corps of Engineers Planning Guidance, specifically, the Agency Specific Procedures (ASPs).  These procedures govern how the Corps evaluates certain proposed water resource investments, impacting both current and future project sponsors. This ASP framework dictates the procedures for conducting cost-shared feasibility studies and, importantly, how cost-shared Federal projects are recommended for Congressional authorization.

In November of last year, in anticipation of the ASP update, the Corps released a “Policy for Conducting Civil Works Planning Studies” (ER 1105-2-103), which updated policy for conducting Civil Works Planning studies from 2000 to the present. However, it did not include the specific procedures.

This month, Army released a proposal for comment titled “Agency Specific Procedures To Implement the Principles, Requirements, and Guidelines for Federal Investments in Water Resources” (89 FR 12066). The comment period for this proposal ends on April 15, 2024.

With 13 years of experience as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Project Planning and Review, I am well-versed in the Corps Planning process and understand the importance of the ASPs. Project sponsors engaging in cost-shared studies with the Corps should be aware that these new rules, once finalized, will significantly impact how these studies are conducted and reviewed by the Corps and the Administration. 

Here is why this issue is significant to project sponsors.

New Benefit Categories: The proposed ASP rules suggest that the Corps intends to broaden how it analyzes and recommends Civil Works projects for Congressional authorization. The rules aim to expand benefit categories to account for the total benefits that potential projects may provide. Projects that previously demonstrated healthy National Economic Development (NED) benefits along with life-safety benefits were given higher priority. If these new rules are finalized, projects would likely be recommended for authorization based on a broader range of benefits beyond just NED/life-safety benefits alone.

Focus on foreseen benefits (monetized and non-monetized) and viable alternatives: The proposed rules require total benefits to be displayed, analyzed relative to project alternatives, and serve as the basis for project recommendations. This change may require significant attention to potential nature-based solutions and environmental justice considerations in future Corps feasibility studies.

Benefits: The proposed rule seems open on whether it will require maximizing net total benefits in recommending a project or something else. Weighting of benefits as a proposed option could lead to inconsistencies among similar projects but could also highlight the significance of priority benefits in individual cases, requiring significant documentation. As a result, project proposals could be case-specific, although there might not be entire consistency on federal project recommendations.

Evaluation of Economic Benefits: Proposed projects will continue to be evaluated on economic benefits, but there will be a broader requirement to account for other effects. The Federal Register Notice seeks comment on how the Army should take into account all four of the current economic benefit categories of NED, RED, EQ, and OSE. Project sponsors have an open invitation to comment on this aspect. 

It remains to be seen how the benefits analysis would be used to develop the tentatively selected plan and ultimately, the Federally recommended plan. Under the presently worded proposed rule, this could allow case-specific studies to chart their own course. Project sponsors have an opportunity to shape how the final rule may be implemented and should closely examine how total benefits would be captured and translated into project recommendations.

Doug Lamont, PE

Senior Advisor

Doug joined the Dawson team in 2019 after a career with the Army Corps of Engineers, including 13 years as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Project Planning and Review.


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