Virginia’s Return on Investment in Corps of Engineers Civil Works Projects

by James C. Sherlock

In response to my suggestion to use the Corps of Engineers to assess Virginia’s needs for hurricane and flood control, libertarian commenters on this blog used the argument that only oceanfront landowners will benefit.

That shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the process works.  I ran into that same level of ignorance in the General Assembly.

No plan can defend everything everywhere, but a proper plan will do a cost-benefit analysis, and the USACE by law does that in every plan. Corps plans will protect what that its cost-benefit analysis indicates can be protected with a significant return on investment.   The value of people, disadvantaged communities, historically minority communities and areas of historical and ecological significance are counted in that assessment, not just property.

The Corps is a designated federal enforcer of environmental laws with regards to water and water related projects. They first will do everything they can with natural solutions before shifting to such construction projects as levies, pumps, seawalls, flood gates and berms.

The Corps uses a Regional Economic System (RECONS) model, which is a program used to assess the regional, state, and national impacts of projects. It is constantly assessed and updated.

Between 2010 and 2013, Corps of Engineers Civil Works projects reflected an average total net of $110 billion in National Economic Development benefits and $34 billion in returns to the U.S. Treasury. Each dollar invested in Civil Works generated about $16 in economic benefits and five dollars in U.S. Treasury revenues. Historically, the Civil Works budget is around $6 billion annually.

The often-cited corruption of city and county councils that favor developers without concern for environmental impact exists and needs to be addressed with considerable priority.

But one of the reasons for turning over the planning and execution of hurricane and flood control planning to USACE is because they cannot be bought.

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31 responses to “Virginia’s Return on Investment in Corps of Engineers Civil Works Projects

  1. Interesting article:

    “U.S. Flood Strategy Shifts to ‘Unavoidable’ Relocation of Entire Neighborhoods
    Using tax dollars to move whole communities out of flood zones, an idea long dismissed as radical, is swiftly becoming policy,

    excerpt:

    ” For years, even as seas rose and flooding worsened nationwide, policymakers stuck to the belief that relocating entire communities away from vulnerable areas was simply too extreme to consider — an attack on Americans’ love of home and private property as well as a costly use of taxpayer dollars. Now, however, that is rapidly changing amid acceptance that rebuilding over and over after successive floods makes little sense.

    The shift threatens to uproot people not only on the coasts but in flood-prone areas nationwide, while making the consequences of climate change even more painful for cities and towns already squeezed financially.

    This month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency detailed a new program, worth an initial $500 million, with billions more to come, designed to pay for large-scale relocation nationwide. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has started a similar $16 billion program. That followed a decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to start telling local officials that they must agree to force people out of their homes or forfeit federal money for flood-protection projects.”

    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/26/climate/flooding-relocation-managed-retreat.html

    • I read it. They wrote their story for the same reason I wrote mine, the approach of the dual storms to the border of Louisiana and Texas.

      The thrust of the story is that the public at large and their elected representatives from the President on down have figured out that not only are some homes in places that regularly flood and in which they can no longer get flood insurance because of the regular flooding, but also where the flooding won’t as a practical matter be stopped at any less than many times the costs of relocation.

      USACE assessments, being cost-benefit as one measuring factor, points these areas out and recommends relocation unless they are of special historical or cultural significance.

      Under rules in place for at least the last decade, no USACE hurricane and flooding mitigation plan is executed without gaining substantial local public approval sought through local governments. Without it, USACE, with far more worthwhile projects than money, will move on to projects that will gain such approval.

      The Times story clearly grudgingly even gave Donald Trump a backhanded compliment, because the expanded program was initiated during his administration. It was very backhanded – climate change denier, that sort of thing.

  2. I am open but my experiences with Army Corp’s is not the best.

    My first experience is childhood up on Lake Erie, every spring our cottages (despite being built on 6-ft stilts) would flood out where the river with snowmelt flowed into the Lake. That was a perennial Army Corps project that always seemed to make the flooding worse each year, and also it caused shifting sands so eventually we had to wade over an inlet to new lagoon get to the beach.

    My second experience pertains to offshore wind power, South Jersey and Philly wanted to deepen the Delaware River by dredging by the Army Corps. Elected officials said the oil industry needed to be able to send supertankers up the Delaware River. Finally the oil industry very politely thanked the elected officials for thinking of them, but in reality there never was a plan or need to send supertankers up the Delaware River. So this was more of a “make-work” half billion dollar project, which elected officials had ways to profit from such as selling land they owned for the dredge spoils. More recently NJ is hoping to build a wind turbine assembly factory in South Jersey across from Philly using the new “port”. I am reading between the lines here, but it sounds like they may have had to relocate the factory further south, due to bridges.

    The Delaware River dredging was my last eco-fight in NJ, after I moved, they were able to go ahead with it. It was pretty much my only loss on NJ eco-battles, but I was no longer living there.

    • USACE heavily revised their rules greatly in the past decade or more and under the Trump administration is in the process of updating them again, for the better. It is the kind of nonsense you cite that caused the changes.

      Remember when President Obama, seeking to stimulate the economy, famously discovered that there was no such a thing as a shovel-ready project?

      See https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/MOU-One-Federal-Decision-m-18-13-Part-2-1.pdf for the One Federal Decision Framework for Environmental Review and Authorization. It used to take as many as 12 decisions that occurred sequentially. Now they are required to be done concurrently. The process that used to take 10 years now must be completed in two. And no step is skipped, they are just better managed.

      See the permitting dashboard initiative at https://www.permits.performance.gov. Zoom in on the map to your area and you can see where federal projects stand in the approval process. Click on Department of the Army under scorecard summary and see how USACE is doing.

      • Interesting. Glad to see Mongolians are now dutifully obtaining permits from DOT. One has to wonder is the typo was in the Longitude, or the bureaucracy spending our taxpayer funds on infrastructure.

  3. “favor developers without concern for environmental impact”

    AKA Prince William County’s Mission Statement

  4. “Moses.”
    “Yes, God.”
    “Take this stick. I want you to lead my people to the promise land.”
    “But Pharaoh will not let us go.”
    “Don’t worry, that’s what the stick is for. When you reach the Red Sea, strike the stick to the ground, and the sea will part. Don’t dally. Hurry my people to the other side. When Pharaoh follows, I will close the sea on them.”
    “Okay, strike the stick. Is that it?”
    “Well, no. You’ll have to write the Environmental Impact Statement.”

  5. I would think that for a Libertarian this approach might be problematical.

    It would be one thing for all taxpayers to help pay to preserve public infrastructure but what is the justification for private property?

    When we compute “cost benefit” does that also include private property?

    I don’t know. I do know the Army Corp has spent billions (trillions?) on the Mississippi River, New Orleans etc… so somewhere in the middle of all that policy apparently there is some justification for spending tax dollars on private property.

    • The direct answer to your question is the economic output and taxes generated on private property.

      One example. The most valuable industrial plant in the nation may be Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding. It is the nation’s only builder of aircraft carriers and one of only two producers of Virginia class and new Columbia class submarines. The Columbia class ballistic missile subs will replace the aging Ohio class boats as the undersea leg of America’s nuclear deterrent. NNS is on private land. On the water.

      Military bases are responsible for their own flood protection by their own engineers under military department budgets, but that responsibility by law extends only to the base fences.

      At a much smaller scale, Richmond’s floodwall was a USACE project to protect private property valuable to Richmond’s tax base.

      • >Military bases are responsible for their own flood protection by their own engineers

        Are you saying the Army has a different Corp of Engineers than the Army Corp of Engineers? Is this managed by the Department of Redundancy Department?

        • Of course not. USACE has military and civilian components.

          Uniformed military engineers build bases in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, sometimes under fire, and, believe it or not, spend a lot of time making sure that they are environmentally friendly as feasible under the circumstances. The army’s civilian engineers play a big role in protecting their bases in the U.S.

      • Taxes generated by private property. To the extent these are local real estate and even personal property taxes, they only benefit the local community. How does increased real estate taxes from beachfront structures in Virginia Beach or the Outer Banks, NC benefit federal taxpayers in Fairfax County or in Missoula, MT?

        I’m not opposed per se to Corps projects, including flood control. But to the extent the property protected would be flooded by ordinary natural processes, such that no structures should be built in the area affected, shouldn’t a significant portion of the costs be borne by the local property owners?

      • “Military bases are responsible for their own flood protection by their own engineers under military department budgets, but that responsibility by law extends only to the base fences.”

        Do you suppose the coordinate with the city, or just dump it on Hampton Blvd?

    • Now that Noah is dead, we all know that only the ACE can protect us all from Michael Mann-made global warming induced flooding.

      Further, since all of your property is subject to this impending Mann-made flooding (the science is clear), it is now considered navigable and subject to ACE permitting requirements. I hope you have your grass mowing permit, or you may be subject $130,000 a day fines.

  6. Yep, fine bunch of folks they are. Bravely protecting our coasts and the puddles in our driveways. I do admit, those puddles are, in a sense, navigable.

    • That was indeed a period of unsupportable regulatory nonsense. It has been changed under the Trump administration.

      On April 21, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of the Army (Army) published the Navigable Waters Protection Rule in the Federal Register to finalize a revised definition of “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. The final rule details 12 categories of exclusions (i.e., features that are not “waters of the United States”), such as features that only contain water in direct response to rainfall (e.g., ephemeral features), groundwater, many ditches, prior converted cropland, and waste treatment systems.

      Initiatives like this revision to the definition of the navigable waters of the United States and the One Federal Decision Framework for Environmental Review and Authorization described above never get headlines in the RTD or Virginian Pilot, but matter more than most things that do.

  7. It’s just one… but all y’all have a share in it… 22 times you’ve bought in.

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/one-house-22-floods-repeated-claims-drain-federal-insurance-program-1505467830

  8. War, Famine, Pestilence — when government is needed.

    • But wait a minute, aren’t governments the causes of those things, at least the first two?

      • maybe war… but I’m pretty sure if government said you could not build a house on land you own because it can flood – you’d not like it, right?

        • Yes sir, you are correct. I don’t think the government should prevent me building a house on my own land, but I also don’t think they should subsidize my foolish decision to build on untenable land either.

      • Matt, why did you omit the third? The actions, or lack thereof, from the federal government are responsible for the current situation.

        • Nancy, I really don’t know enough of this pandemic to make a good comment. From what I see (death rates per 100,000), I’m not sure that the data conclusively points to specific political strategies that have yielded better outcomes. I’m sure that we haven’t yet adequately controlled for all of the variables such as government response, the degree to which the culture supports following governmental edicts, population density, etc. I really can’t wait for the dust to settle on all of this so we can really figure out what worked and what didn’t. However, I’m not entirely sure that folks will ever agree on that, and opinions will continue to be split along ideological lines.
          https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases

          Now all of that being said, I suspect that the Chinese government may be liable to some degree or another in this current mess. Whether this bug came out of a bush meat market or escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (or some other facility), I don’t think China was forthcoming with the information, at least initially if not to date.

          • I am still AMAZED that Uncle Sugar admitted that the anthrax came from Fort Detrich. Of course, I suppose they had to, since the genetic markers were added to track it. Bet they don’t do that anymore.

  9. Thanks, sherlockj, for hanging in there despite the snarky skeptics.

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