The Corps at a Cross Road

Article excerpt

WHILE THE ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS HAS BEEN CHARGED WITH HELPING TO REBUILD IRAQ, THE VENERABLE AGENCY FINDS ITSELF IN TROUBLE AT HOME. IT HAS TURNED TO ENGINEERING EDlJCATORS FOR HELP.

IF there is any United States government agency that Jt has survived longer than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), it is hard to think of one. The Corps hegan in 1775, when the Continental Congress authorized a chief engineer to build fortifications for Washington's troops at Bunker Hill and other areas near Boston. Through the ensuing centuries, the USAGE has provided the nation with vital services: military support through numerous wars, road construction, the dredging of harbors and inland waterways, flood control, and hydroelectric power.

The agency that has survived more than 200 years is currently at a crossroad. On the domestic front, environmentalists have long criticized the Corps for clamming rivers and building levees without giving much thought to the effect on native species and ecosystems. Congress has accused the agency of pursuing large construction projects with little benefit other than local economic development. In the midst of these accusations, the Corps also finds itself facing a fact of life in the 21st Century: The big dam and hydrology construction projects that have defined its mission in the past are all pretty much done.

But as its relevance is doubted by some at home, the agency finds itself with added military duties. It is the lead agency in awarding contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq and its oil industry. These duties include restoring the power grid in Baghdad and other cities, rebuilding bridges and roadways, constructing barracks and other infrastructure to service the troops, and hying to restore pipelines and port facilities to get Iraqi oil flowing again. This is in addition to similar work being done in Afghanistan. And all this is being done under the constant threat of suicide bombers and sabotage.

The military function is also being played out at home. With the Corps' duties including protecting the nation's water supply, the USAGE finds itself devoting resources to preventing biological and chemical terrorist attacks at many reservoirs. It is an odd conundrum for the agency: budgets being cut, relevance being questioned, all while many important duties are being added.

The USACE has about 35,000 employees, about 25,000 working on civil projects and 10,000 working on the military side. But of the 35,000 employees, only about 600 are commissioned military officers. The Corps' budget is $15.2 billion a year, with about 70 percent ofthat going to contracts let out to private corporations and managed by the Corps. About 60 percent of the total budget goes for military construction. The Bush administration has cut the budget by about 10 percent for 2004, affecting mostly the civil works side of the ledger. Hardest hit will be the construction budget, which will be slashed 16 percent to $1.4 billion. These cuts will be felt deeply in private engineering firms who participate in Corps' construction contracts.

CHANGE IN COURSE

In addition to budget cuts, another problem for the USAGE is its aging workforce. It is estimated that about one third of its 35,000 employees will be facing retirement in the next decade. The leadership of the USAGE is worried that decades of expertise and "agency memory" will be lost with the coming retirements. One of the ways the Coqjs is responding to the challenge of retooling the agency, from one that historically managed huge construction projects to one that will handle environmental restoration issues, is by teaming with universities to refrain some of its employees. Prodded by the looming retirement of so many of its workers, the Corps is working with several universities to offer a fast-track master's program that will offer courses applicable to the "new" mission. Schools that are offering programs include Johns Hopkins University, Southern Illinois University, the University of Arizona, and Washington State University. …