Congress and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2016
January 5, 2016 (IN10424)
Nicole T. Carter
Nicole T. Carter, Specialist in Natural Resources Policy (firstname.lastname@example.org, 7-0854)
The 114th Congress is anticipated to consider authorization legislation for the water resources activities of the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) in 2016. A number of issues may influence the content of such legislation. These
issues span the agency's role in new and existing navigation improvements, coastal and riverine flood risk reduction,
and environmental restoration and protection efforts. Congress generally authorizes the study and construction of Corps
projects before providing federal appropriations for them. While many stakeholders are interested in Congress
authorizing new Corps studies and projects, others seek congressional direction in developing a more focused and
prioritized agenda for the agency and for the federal funding dedicated to its new and existing projects.
Congress has often considered Corps authorizations biennially; however, congressional enactment has been less regular.
The 113th Congress enacted the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA 2014; P.L. 113121); it was preceded by a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2007 (P.L. 110-114) and a WRDA 2000
WRRDA 2014 established a process for the Administration to solicit and review public proposals for new Corps studies
and construction projects. Congress received its first report from the Administration with these proposals in February
2015 and is anticipated to receive another set of proposals in February 2016. Additionally, as of December 2015, the
Corps' Chief of Engineers had completed 18 reports favorably, recommending their construction at a federal cost of
$2.8 billion and a nonfederal cost of $2.2 billion.
In addition to Corps-specific items proposed for authorization, congressional debates relevant to the agency may expand
to other federal water resources issues. For example, the Administration's new project planning and evaluation guidance
for federal water investments went into effect in June 2015 for most agencies. It expanded the consideration of
environmental and other social goals and nonstructural or "green" solutions when developing projects and selecting the
federally preferred alternatives, as explained inCRS In Focus IF10221, Principles, Requirements, and Guidelines
(PR&G) for Federal Investments in Water Resources. The explanatory statement accompanying P.L. 114-113, the
Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, prohibits the Corps' use of FY2016 funds for implementation of the updated
The 114th Congress may consider whether or not WRRDA 2014 implementation may require additional congressional
direction. WRRDA 2014 authorized changes to project development and delivery for Corps projects. For example,
WRRDA 2014 expanded authorization for nonfederal delivery of projects and authorized opportunities for private
sector funding and participation in projects. While the Corps has not completed implementation guidance for many
WRRDA 2014 provisions, it has been working on furthering some demonstration projects (e.g., splitting construction
of the authorized Fargo-Moorhead flood risk reduction project, with the Corps leading one portion and a nonfederalprivate partnership responsible for the other portion). Some of these project delivery and development changes may
receive additional congressional attention in 2016 as the benefits and risks of alternative delivery approaches are
evaluated. Congress also may review developments that could affect the approval and pace of nonfederal projects. For
example, some stakeholders question the impact of the Corps' 2015 guidance on approving alterations, occupations, and
encroachments on Corps projects (known as Section 408 approvals). WRRDA 2014 and other legislation also altered
activities eligible for monies derived from two navigation trust funds; some stakeholders are interested in additional
changes to the eligible activities and use of monies from these trust funds.
Many navigation stakeholders are particularly interested in actions to prepare for the Panama Canal expansion and
potential promotion of exports. At the same time, actions on some harbor-deepening projects have raised environmental
concerns, and there is disagreement over whether, and if so how, to prioritize federal resources on navigation
improvement in different regions. Other stakeholders may pursue actions associated with refining the Corps' role in
different types of coastal flood risk reduction measures, including projects that were developed in response to
Hurricane Sandy. There may also be congressional interest in any developments in 2016 with controversial projects,
such as the St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway project in southeast Missouri.
Some stakeholders are interested in Corps activities associated with its existing infrastructure. The agency is spending
increasing resources managing a portfolio of aging infrastructure and is challenged in its efforts to strategically plan for
and develop funding sources for reinvestments. Other stakeholders are interested in altering the operations of Corps
facilities. For example, interest in policies and pilot efforts that promote more water supply benefits from Corps
projects (e.g., reoperations of reservoirs) expanded in 2015, as some western states experienced persistent drought
conditions. The agency also has a number of updates to reservoir operating manuals under way. For example, the Corps
is in the process of completing a new water control manual for its projects in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint
Basin. Operations of these projects have been part of an ongoing dispute between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida over
sharing of water resources and maintaining the health of riverine and Apalachicola Bay species and ecosystems.
As a result of the 2015-2016 winter flooding in the Midwest, some stakeholders may seek a review of Corps emergency
flood fighting and infrastructure performance and policies, as well as additional flood risk reduction efforts in
Mississippi and Missouri River tributaries.
In summary, congressional action associated with Corps authorization legislation may encompass a wide range of issues
beyond authorization of new studies and construction projects. These issues include the agency's ongoing challenges
with project planning and delivery, its efforts to efficiently and effectively expand alternative delivery and financing
while protecting the public interest, the competing interests associated with Corps operations of existing infrastructure,
and the challenge of managing aging assets.