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Congressional Research Service’s recent report on US Army Corps Of Engineers Water Resource Authorizations

Jul 16, 2014 | News & Views

Summary of the Report

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers undertakes activities to maintain navigable channels, reduce
flood and storm damage, and restore aquatic ecosystems. Congress directs the Corps through
authorizations, appropriations, and oversight of its studies, construction projects, and other
activities. This report summarizes congressional authorization and appropriations processes for
the Corps. It also discusses agency activities under general authorities.

Omnibus Authorization Legislation. Congress generally authorizes numerous Corps activities
and provides policy direction in an omnibus Corps authorization bill, typically called the Water
Resources Development Act (WRDA) or more recently the Water Resources Reform and
Development Act (WRRDA). A WRRDA 2014 (P.L. 113-121) was enacted on June 10, 2014.
WRDAs historically are omnibus bills including many provisions for site-specific activities. How
to construct a WRDA bill that complied with House rules related to a moratorium on earmarks
complicated WRDA consideration in the 112th Congress, but these issues were resolved in the
113th Congress.

The Senate passed WRDA 2013, S. 601, on May 15, 2013. S. 601 would authorize Corps
activities and modifications of existing authorizations that meet certain criteria; the bill includes
numerous other provisions as it attempts to address issues with the duration and cost of Corps
projects. The bill also would establish new procedures for using Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund
monies, in an effort to expand spending above current levels.

Agency Appropriations. Federal funding for Corps civil works activities is provided in annual
Energy and Water Development appropriations acts or supplemental appropriations acts. Annual
Corps civil works appropriations have ranged from $4.5 billion to $5.5 billion during the last
decade. An increasing share of the agency’s appropriations is used for operations and
maintenance. Another trend has been increasing emergency supplemental appropriations. From
1987 to 2013, Congress appropriated $32.2 billion in Corps supplemental funding. Of this
funding, $30.8 billion came through acts passed between 2003 and 2013. This funding was more
than half of the Corps’ regular appropriations over the same period ($55 billion). In part because
of competition for funds and because Corps authorizations outpace appropriations, many
authorized activities have not received appropriations. There is a backlog of more than 1,000
authorized studies and construction projects. In recent years, few new studies and new
construction activities have been in either the President’s budget request or enacted
appropriations.

Standard Project Development. The standard process for a Corps project requires two separate
congressional authorizations—one for investigation and one for construction—as well as
appropriations. The investigation phase starts with Congress authorizing a study; if it is funded,
the Corps conducts an initial reconnaissance study followed by a more detailed feasibility study.
Congressional authorization for construction is based on the feasibility study. For most activities,
Congress requires a nonfederal sponsor to share some portion of study and construction costs.
These cost-sharing requirements vary by the type of project. For many project types (e.g., levees),
nonfederal sponsors are responsible for operation and maintenance once construction is complete.

Other Corps Activities and Authorities. Although the project development process just
described is standard, there are exceptions. Congress has granted the Corps some general
authorities to undertake some studies, small projects, technical assistance, and emergency actions
such as flood-fighting, repair of damaged levees, and limited drought assistance. Additionally, the
Corps conducts emergency response actions directed by the Federal Emergency Management
Agency.

Author