From problem to project – feasibility phase starts project rolling

Published Dec. 23, 2020
Westminster - East Garden Grove project, Dec. 11, 2018

Westminster - East Garden Grove project, Dec. 11, 2018

Westminster - East Garden Grove project, Dec. 11, 2018

Westminster - East Garden Grove project, Dec. 11, 2018

by Vanessa Villarreal, USACE Chicago District, Public Affairs Office

If a community, regional, or state government agency is seeking to partner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Chicago District to address a water resource problem within any of its seven mission areas, the Planning Branch is the first to be called.

“Usually the Corps is approached by a state or local government entity about a water resource problem that they have identified,” Dave Handwerk, chief of the Planning Branch’s Economic Formulation Section, said. “Sometimes this is a result of a storm event, sometimes through our outreach efforts. We frequently get approached by units of government that we have worked with in the past such as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago or the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.” 

But before the federal government can participate in implementing a project, planning studies must be conducted to determine if the project is feasible, and if there is a federal interest in cost sharing.

“We use a two-phase study for only our small, delegated authorities such as the Continuing Authorities Program (CAP) 205/206 and Great Lakes Fishery and Ecosystem Restoration program,” Sue Davis, chief, Planning Branch, said. “For specifically-authorized studies like Des Plaines II, Bubbly Creek, and Westminster, those are now done in a single phase. Our DuPage study was one of the first completed via single phase.”    

A project recommended by the Corps for implementation is submitted to Congress for authorization. Congressional authorization and appropriations are required before a project can be implemented. And, as Davis stated, certain small projects do not require a specific project authorization from Congress, and can be implemented under CAP.

“We have a large number of CAP projects in various phases of development,” Handwerk said. “Lansing/Calumet City, Illinois is a good example of a CAP study. It’s a small flood risk reduction Section 205 study. We also have a large number of ecosystem restoration projects, called Section 206s, that are ongoing or completed.” 

Project development at USACE is divided into four phases: feasibility, preconstruction engineering and design, construction, and operations and maintenance.

During feasibility, the Planning Branch’s team investigates identified water resource problems and opportunities, formulates a range of alternative plans, and identifies a recommended plan.

“This first phase usually takes about three years,” Davis said. “The feasibility phase also includes an evaluation of the impacts of the proposed action, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act. The evaluation is documented in the appropriate compliance document such as an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement.”

Studies can be initiated if three conditions are met – that the study has been authorized by Congress; that a willing and capable sponsor has expressed interest in participating in a study; and that there’s money to complete the study.

In order to express their interest to initiate a feasibility study, the nonfederal sponsor(s) must provide a letter of intent stating their willingness to share in the costs of the feasibility study. Once federal funds are allocated, a Feasibility Cost Sharing Agreement (FCSA) is signed with the nonfederal sponsor. The costs are shared equally between the Corps and the nonfederal sponsor(s).

“The feasibility study will generally be completed within three years of the date of the FCSA and will normally not cost more than $3 million, although a waiver from these requirements may be provided for large, complex studies,” Davis said. “The feasibility study results in a recommendation for or against federal participation in solutions to the water resources problems and opportunities, documented in a feasibility report.”

The Chicago District closed out fiscal year 2020 with a record-breaking $241M program. This FY 2021, the district anticipates completing another large program. USACE adjusted its Civil Works boundaries within the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division on March 29, 2020, to sustain a healthy workload across the Corps.

The Chicago District is responsible for water resources development in the Chicago metropolitan area, upper Illinois River watershed, Lake Michigan watershed in Wisconsin, and the upper Wabash River watershed In Indiana. The district delivers vital engineering services through flood and coastal storm risk management, navigation, aquatic ecosystem restoration, regulatory, emergency management, recreation, and interagency support services.

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