Harbor Dredging? Yes the Army handles that too…. But should it?

From the Corps of Engineers Flickr collection:

Dredging the Baltimore Harbor
Caption:  Dredging the Baltimore Harbor

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District contractor Weeks Marine uses their dredge, B. E. Lindholm, to keep the Cape Henry portion of the Baltimore Harbor Channel at 51 feet deep so ships can safely travel up the Chesapeake Bay to the Port of Baltimore. Because the Cape Henry portion of the channel is at the entrance way to the Chesapeake Bay, Norfolk District takes on this project in support of its sister district, Baltimore. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Patrick Bloodgood)

Weeks Marine’s hopper dredge, B.E. Lindholm

Caption: Weeks Marine’s hopper dredge, B.E. Lindholm

Dredge material is pumped on board Weeks Marine’s hopper dredge, B.E. Lindholm, from the depths of the Cape Henry Channel at the entrance way to the Chesapeake Bay. The dredge is working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District, which is tasked with keeping the channel at 51 feet so ships can safely travel to the Port of Baltimore. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Patrick Bloodgood)

As the captions state, the dredge in these photos is a contracted vessel.  However the Corps of Engineers maintains a small fleet of its own dredges too (I think they are down to four currently).  Those vessels, supplemented by contracted resources such as the B.E. Lindholm, perform a mission dating back to 1824 – maintain navigation for the nation’s harbors and riverways.

Because of this task and other similar civil engineering missions, funding for the Corps of Engineers projects is not your traditional “beans and bullets” army stuff.  Unlike… say… tank procurement, the projects taken on by the Corps in these missions often have a direct impact on taxpayers.  “Infrastructure” is the word you hear most often in these budget battles.   And that also often puts the Corps in the unenviable position of executing someone’s pet project aimed at pleasing a particular constituent audience.  The civil engineering missions also place the Corps in the role of enforcer for a myriad of Federal regulations – ranging from the Clean Water Act to the National Historic Preservation Act.  Given this wide ranging mission, current plans for FY 2013 call for $4.731 billion just in discretionary spending, specific to the civil engineering tasks.

Given the budget cuts to the Army, should the Corps of Engineers retain this role?  Should the role instead be handed over to other government agencies, perhaps Department of Transportation or Commerce?  Or…. gasp… make the Environmental Protection Agency responsible for maintaining wetlands?  Maybe tell the Navy to dredge its own channels?

Would the Army do well to relinquish this long traditional role?  Or is this a role the Army should retain?

5 thoughts on “Harbor Dredging? Yes the Army handles that too…. But should it?”

  1. I’ve thought for some time that USACE should relinquish those functions. USACE has done those things for many years. Robert E. Lee, for example, saved the port of St. Louis because of one of his major projects. There is an island in Hampton Roads that I passed every time I put out to sea from NOB NORVA. Lee was building the Island for a purpose I now don’t recall, but the project was cancelled.

    Maintenance of inland navigation aids could be turned over to the Coast Guard, and maintenance of the channels and navigation dams could be turned over to USDOT or even the state DOTs. The environmental regulations the impose are, for the most part, questionable, but could easily be turned over to USEPA if they really are needed, and most are not.

    The Corps really needs to withdraw from the civil projects regime and concentrate on their military mission. At one time USACE made sense because the Army was the only group with the personnel resources to do that work. This is not the case anymore, and the few that do not exist outside USACE , could be transferred where they are needed.

    Frankly, I strongly suspect that the USACE civil projects side will suffer as a result of the DOD cuts.

    1. USACE civil projects will likely remain unaltered by DOD cuts. The funding for USACE civil projects doesn’t come from the DOD, but through the Congressional OMB. State and federal grants also contribute to their funding of projects. In practice, USACE works for the Administration and with Congress for their anual funding. As Congress has not passed a budget for the last three years, USACE funding falls under the continuing resolutions. Manning and retention of personel will probably be affected to a certain extent. That at least, is the thinking on the merchy side of things.

    2. USACE has not been unaffected by what happens to the parent service in the past. While most of their funds comes through a different track, normally, there are policy changes in the past that have been justified by what happens to the Army. The problem is, you never know what is going to happen because of unintended consequences. I have no idea what exactly will happen. There are some things that should go away, but with a FedGov in thrall to the left, that stuff won’t go away.

    3. Oh, I agree with you on some of that. Do I think that USACE should disengage from their present civil responsibilities? Yes, maybe, but…
      What would replace them? USCG is overburdened already, and they do the AtN inland already. Would you really want the EPA more involved? I’m sure I wouldn’t. USDOT I’m not too crazy about either. The only thing I could foresee would be an entirely new federal agency created from whole cloth. About the last thing we need. Without the already extensive experience of the USACE. Attempting to create something akin to the TVA has historically failed, especially in the Columbia/Snake River system. I think turning it over to state DOT’s would be asking for trouble. Too many navigable rivers share state lines. Just be asking for a pissing match.

  2. One of the things I learned reading the Corps of Engineers history of World War II was the oddball setup of the Corps. Unlike most branch Chiefs, the Chief of Engineers doesn’t always answer to the Chief of Staff. For “army” stuff, sure. But when dealing with the ACoE/civil stuff, he “steps outside” the chain of command and deals directly with the White House and Congress.

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