Corps service competition general’s biggest concern When it comes to flood threats or navigation needs, Brigadier Gen. Michael J. Walsh is the man you want on your side. Walsh heads the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ largest division with more than 2,500 employees under his command. Wednesday, he shared his insights and concerns with members of the Ports Association of Louisiana attending their 26th annual convention that concluded this morning with a board meeting at the Holiday Inn. The Corps’ Vicksburg-based Mississippi Valley Division not only oversees navigation and flood control issues in the lower reaches of the system, it also has jurisdiction in the far northern regions of the U.S. where rampant flooding was an issue in Fargo, N.D., earlier this year. Walsh said the Corps’ mission is to provide flood control, ensure navigable waterways and protect the ecosystem of the nation’s rivers.
Typically, the division can accomplish that mission with around $1 billion in annual funding. However, unusually high costs in 2005 due to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and again last year with Hurricane Gustav coupled with the North Dakota flooding severely tapped into the Corps Corps services competition top concern of general reserves. Since Katrina, Walsh noted that the Corps has spent up to $14 billion in the New Orleans district alone on flood protection projects. Federal stimulus funding of as much as $150 billion is being directed toward the Vicksburg division that will go a long way toward paying for vital infrastructure work throughout the Mississippi Valley Division, he said. “We’ve heard the money is coming for months now,” Walsh said. “The latest rumor was that we would have it by either Monday or maybe next Friday.” The general said he was “now at the point that I’ll only believe it when I see the check.” Walsh noted that a push toward getting a “regionalization plan is in motion,” part of an effort to obtain more federal money for navigation and flood control projects. Having each individual district in the world’s third largest watershed region involved in a competitive battle for funding is “at best, a little bit shortsighted,” Walsh asserted. “We’re now being asked to solve each issue one at a time,” he said. “A better plan is having a unifying vision that will pull us all together, rather than apart.” More collaboration is needed on many fronts, he added, in order to achieve “consistent interaction” between all the federal, state and local agencies involved. Headway has been made in that direction, he noted, with the relatively recent formation of the Interagency Levee Task Force and various other programs.
The ILTF has been successful in its preliminary stages of helping reduce flood damage across the U.S. Also, a Rainfall-River Forecasting Summit has been organized to receive timely input from the National Weather Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Corps. Other examples of recent collaborative efforts involving the Corps, Walsh noted, included: —The Mississippi Valley Flood Control Association. —The Mississippi River Commission. __The National Waterways Conference. —Ducks Unlimited. —The Audubon Society. —The Diversion Summit, bringing scientists and public agencies together to discuss the need for river diversion projects and land-building efforts. Walsh said immediate and consistent support from navigation interests would greatly assist in the campaign. Another key component in flood control/navigation improvement is the recent push for the “beneficial use of dredged material,” Walsh noted. He pointed out that the plan for dredged material disposal, designed in the 1860s, has always been simply to push the sediment out into the Gulf of Mexico. “We need to take a serious look at beneficial use as a solution to the problems of wetlands loss throughout the system,” he acknowledged. Walsh pointed out that only around 20 percent of dredged material is now being used to help build delta. Another major challenge, especially in recent years, is the dredging capacity of the Corps’ fleet. Within the past year alone, Walsh noted, Corps-owned dredges that historically have been used strictly for emergency jobs, have been employed five times.
A particular trouble spot in the MVD is Southwest Pass, which ideally should be 700-feet wide. Instead, that heavily traveled stretch of the Mississippi River now has a consistent width of 450 feet. The general also told port officials that the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund has about $4.6 billion in the account. “The problem is, nobody can figure out how or when to use it,” he said. Once that is accomplished, Walsh predicted, the Corps will have no problem putting the cash to good use. Through the years, the U.S. Army’s motto has evolved from “Be All You Can Be,” to the lesspopular “An Army of One,” to a more effective “Army Strong” a motto that Walsh predicts will last many years. The navigation industry needs to adopt a motto as well, he suggested. “Navigation needs to promote itself alongside highways and railroads as part of an intermodal transportation campaign,” he stressed.
Article published in Daily-Review