USACE in the Age of Climate Change

Understanding the importance and current status of retrofits to our nation’s civil infrastructure.


The US Army Corps of Engineers is one of the world’s largest public engineering organizations, with over 37,000 Civilians and Soldiers across 90 countries.  Formed in 1775, the agency has a proud lineage of public works projects dating back to the surveying of the American continent and its riverine resources.  Today, USACE is responsible for a multitude of tasks including military facilities construction, providing engineering support to disaster relief operations, environment engineering, and harbor and inland waterway maintenance.

USACE has a very significant hand in preparing the Nation to cope with the effects of climate change.  Increasing severity and duration of drought cycles will stress water supply capabilities – think of the Colorado River basin and already-low Lake Mead which work to supply much of the municipal water resources for the American southwest – and rising sea levels will exacerbate already deficient water retention features – consider the retention levees protecting New Orleans from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.

The Ohio River watershed provides great context for the importance of USACE’s mission.  Nearly $43bn in commodities, representing 35% of the Nation’s waterborne trade, transit the 2500 miles of waterway annually.[i]  The waterway is an irreplaceable product pipeline for the hundreds of chemical plants, refineries, and terminals which service the Great Lakes and Ohio River regions, not to mention the multitude of state level properties, municipalities, and waterfront businesses which owe their existence to stable and predictable riverine navigation.[ii]  While water control structures and river navigation systems are designed with multi-decade lifespans, many are already at or past their design lives.  Increased quantity and severity of flood/drought cycles will likely accelerate deterioration of the existing civil infrastructure which places the economic strength of the region at risk.

To its credit, USACE has already commenced significant efforts to understand and categorize the ramifications of climate change on its public works projects.  The USACE Climate Change Adaptation Plan, published in 2011 and revised annually, identifies several lines of effort in evaluating the preparedness of existing and upcoming projects and in training staff on a going-forward basis.  Sea level change guidance, provided in the form of engineering circulars, already informs the project planning and design for water retention structures.  Drought contingency plans, many originally conceived in the late 70’s and early 80’s, are being reevaluated in light of new meteorological data to evaluate their feasibility and effectiveness to mitigate the stresses of enhanced drought cycles.  Environmental studies, like the North Atlantic Coastal Comprehensive Study, have been commissioned or completed to reassess the flood risk vulnerability of coastal areas given rising sea levels.[iii]  These studies serve to inform local civil agencies about their most significant local vulnerabilities and what methods or preparatory actions will be most effective in offsetting the identified risks.

Proactive measures additionally include major studies on carbon sinks.  USACE is seeking to understand exactly how efficiently or inefficiently the lands and aquatic areas under its control consume and/or contain excess carbon from the environment.[iv]  The results of these studies will presumably inform future guidance on land-use management and possibly inform National policy on the distribution of woodland leases.  Ultimately, these studies and revisions will be added to the litany of existing documentation which serves as the source of guidance for climate change prevention and response measures.

Unfortunately, actions to date have primarily been constricted to studies and surveys – little real preparation appears to have been started in a ‘shovel to earth’ sense.  USACE formal policy states that it, “…has not yet identified a climate risk during the adaptation planning process that is deemed so significant that it impairs USACE’s statutory missions or the operations addressed.”[v]  Close examination of the 463 page Civil Works FY 2017 Budget Justification Information circular published by USACE in February 2016 reveals a mere 7 uses of the word ‘climate’, all used in reference to 5 studies and surveys of major waterway/harbor projects (i.e. Ports of NY and NJ, etc.).[vi]  Furthermore, the Mississippi River and Tributaries project portfolio indicates a grand total of ~$90mm for new flood control construction in FY16.[vii]

This evidence appears to paint a picture that costly – but necessary and vital – civil construction programs have not yet risen to the top of Federal legislators’ priorities of importance.  Business leaders, now and in the future, would do well to note the importance of their local water resources and to talk with their legislators about ongoing efforts.

772 Words



[i] [ii]Pennsylvania DCNR, “Ohio River Basin Facts”,, accessed November 2016.

[iii] [iv][v]USACE, “Climate Change Adaptation Plan”,, accessed November 2016.

[vi] USACE, “FY2017 Budged Justification Information”,, accessed November 2016.

[vii] USACE, “FY 2016 Work Plan – Mississippi River and Tributaries”,, accessed November 2016.


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Student comments on USACE in the Age of Climate Change

  1. Hey Dan
    Great perspective, I enjoyed reading your post.
    – One thing that stuck out at me when reading your blog post was the dissonance between the armed forces and the nation’s political parties. On the one hand, the US is a relative sceptic regarding climate change, partly fuelled by rhetoric from major political figureheads. On the other hand, the armed forces are actively making plans to address climate change and witness its effects in their day to day operations. Do you think there’s any role for USACE to influence the national debate? As part of their work to mitigate the effects of climate change, is it incumbent on them to use their prestige to lend support to the scientific consensus that climate change is anthropogenic? In other words: is prevention better than cure?
    – I was also wondering about the linkages between USACE’s research and the private sector. As they complete studies into woodland leases and water resource management, can USACE proactively bring their findings to affected firms? Are firms even aware that USACE could assist them with their long-term resource management?
    – Finally: the Economist had a great briefing on Water Scarcity in this week’s issue (11/5/16), and how the problem will become exacerbated with climate change. They identified infrastructure deficiencies as being a major cause of poor water use: eg leaky pipes, lack of reservoirs and purification facilities. Unsurprisingly, they advocated a market-based pricing mechanism to assist in allocating capital towards these investment projects. But I wonder whether partnerships with USACE could potentially be a solution as well?
    – On a side note, great work linking your in-body references to your bibliography – nice touch!

  2. Very interesting post Dan, thanks. I had absolutely no idea how much USACE was doing to contribute to sustainability before this.

    In terms of what questions your post raised: I’d love to know more about how the focus of the USACE Climate Change Adaptation Plan has evolved over time. Have their primary goals been in line with the concurrent research studies that were commissioned – for example, you mention sea levels, flood and drought prevention, as well as carbon sinks. Or are their goals more broad? In addition, I’d love to know more about how these priorities are set by USACE: are these specifically directed top-down from other government related entities, or unique and independent to the US Army Corps?

    For context – I’m extremely interested in defence policy, having spent time working with the British State Department and been fortunate to work with our British Military – only in a very different context. How close is the interaction between USACE with for example, the US Environmental Protection Agency?

    In reading up on your post, I also came across this 2014 report from the U.S. Army, who on p.10 does mention USACE in their context: They also mention that USACE helped facilitate development in four energy and technology areas: biomass, solar, wind, and geothermal. I’d love to learn more about their interaction thus with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and how they pool resources and synergies to procure reliable, locally generated, renewable, and
    alternative energy supplies. Again – who is most critical here in setting forth budget, and priorities?

    Lots of food for thought – I will continue my mission to learn more about US public policy!

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