NWC Holds 58th Annual Meeting In New Orleans
Members of the National Waterways Conference (NWC) gathered September 12–14 in New Orleans, La., for the group’s 58th annual meeting. The meeting proved quite timely, coinciding locally with New Orleans’ tricentennial and the port’s “Our Working River 300” campaign and nationally with congressional debate over a 2018 Water Resources Development Act and the discussion over whether to shift the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ civil works program to other state and federal agencies.
Maj. Gen. Richard Kaiser, commander of the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division and president of the Mississippi River Commission, addressed the group first, speaking in place of Maj. Gen. Scott Spellmon, deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations for the Corps. Spellmon, along with R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, had been scheduled to speak at the NWC meeting. Both, however, had deployed to the Carolinas in advance of the landfall of Hurricane Florence.
Kaiser first overviewed the far-reaching work the Corps is currently undertaking. In the year since Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico, the Corps was tasked with rebuilding the island’s power grid. Overseas, the Corps is also leading the effort to prevent a dam in Mosul, Iraq, from failing.
“They probably put it geotechnically in the worst place possible,” Kaiser said of the Mosul dam.
He then surveyed civil works tasks domestically that the Corps is tackling.
“This is a vast portfolio, but the men and women in the Corps are getting it done,” he said.
But Kaiser was fast to point out that the Corps isn’t just tackling external projects. The agency is also addressing its internal issues, he said.
“We’ve taken our issues and started fixing them,” Kaiser said.
As an example, Kaiser said the Corps is pushing as much decision-making authority as possible down to the district level, rather than oversight responsibility creeping up to headquarters.
“With the great team at headquarters, they’ve already pushed 14 separate authorities down, back to the district and division levels,” he said. “That’s going to save time and it’s going to save money, and it’s already doing it.”
Kaiser also said the Corps has identified “23 other things we need to work on internally.” He added that leaders at the Corps are also being more proactive in approaching Congress and the administration with laws and policies that could be changed to improve Corps operations.
“We’ve been very proactive in trying to find the ways we can best get after this program,” he said. “It’s making a difference, and I will tell you there’s more to come.”
Kaiser said Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, chief of engineers for the Corps, likes to use the term “revolutionize” rather than “reform” when speaking of changing the Corps from the inside out.
“He’s said, ‘I’m not going to talk about reforming the Corps, because we don’t need to reform the Corps,’” Kaiser said of Semonite. “He said, ‘When I was a kid, reform school was where they sent the bad guys. We’re not bad guys.’ He said, ‘We’ve got to change a little bit of what we’re doing.’”
Then, Kaiser addressed the discussion in Washington, D.C., to withdraw the civil works program from the Corps’ portfolio.
“Many of you have heard the proposal by OMB to move civil works out of the Army,” Kaiser said. “It’s really hard for us to talk about it because, number one, we at the Corps weren’t consulted with this proposal. So number one, we don’t know what problem we are trying to solve. We don’t know the assumptions being made, and we don’t know the asks that are behind this particular proposal.”
Kaiser said he is sure of what an outcome will be if Congress follows through with the proposal.
“If we do this, what we do know is we think it will add some complexity,” Kaiser said. “At the Corps of Engineers, when a drop of rain hits the ground and goes into that watershed, I can tell you that you have integrated water resource management from when that drop of water hits the body and we have to release it somewhere and it ends up at its final destination. I can tell you that it’s an integrated approach, and it’s very challenging.”
With water management, the Corps takes water supply, flood management, navigation, recreation and the environment into consideration.
“There are so many purposes that we have to manage water for,” he said. “And when you’re doing it in one federal entity with colonels and generals who are non-political and who are held accountable for the decisions we make, we tend to make decisions that are based on the best science and the weather we know is coming.
“Now if you split that off into multiple agencies, you can already see a disconnect, you might have a challenge working through and you might not always get decisions that work in a holistic manner,” Kaiser added.
Kaiser then pointed to the Corps’ 22,900 civil works employees. Those employees don’t just deal with civil works projects domestically, he said. They are also among the Corps team that deploys to places like Mosul, Puerto Rico, Afghanistan and the East Coast ahead of Florence. If those employees were dispersed among various other state and federal agencies, Kaiser said he doubts the government would consent to them deploying in response to domestic disasters or international missions.
Considering all the challenges facing the Corps from without and within, Kaiser said the agency stands ready to respond effectively and efficiently.
“I can tell you this: we are going to help build a good solution set for our government,” he said. “And at the end of the day, it is up to us to provide the best solution for this country, so that we get the best leverage out of the resources we provide.”