The Corps feasibility study – finding a balanced solution

Published Jan. 14, 2016
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, right?

That one-liner serves as a metaphor for how an incredibly complex task can be accomplished by stating a goal, gathering facts, initiating action and formulating an overall plan from a series of achievable objectives using available resources.

That also describes how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducts a feasibility study for prospective projects, though we’d work hard to avoid harming an actual elephant.

Since February 2012, Corps feasibility studies have been guided by the “3x3x3 rule,” which states that feasibility reports will be produced in no more than three years; with a cost not greater than $3 million; and involve all three levels of Corps review – district, division and headquarters – throughout the study process. Some complex studies may require additional time or funds but those are the exception rather than the rule.

A Corps feasibility study involves assessing problems and opportunities related to water resources, coming up with alternative solutions to address those problems, comparing those solutions and, ultimately, recommending the solution that makes most sense. There are a variety of approaches, both quantitative and qualitative, to assist with multi-criteria decision making and plan selection using either National Economic Development or National Ecosystem Restoration guidelines prescribed by Congress.

NED guidelines prescribe the minimum acceptable economic benefit-to-cost ratio for a civil works project. For each dollar spent, there should be an equal amount of future cost savings. NER guidelines describe the standards by which the benefits of an ecosystem restoration project are quantified.

The multi-functional project delivery team is the workgroup tasked with conducting the study and consists of a myriad of experts ranging from civil engineering to environmental planning to even a historian/archaeologist. Each team member is responsible for identifying water resources problems and assisting in formulating solutions to those problems within their area of expertise. This interdisciplinary approach to problem solving is key to a successful feasibility study.

Coordination with state and federal resource agencies begins at the outset of the scoping phase when study boundaries are defined. Inter-agency communication and collaboration follows throughout the study, minimizing potential delays and maximizing time invested.

For example, established roles of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, commonly referred to as NOAA Fisheries, are retained and re-emphasized in the feasibility study process with a focus on early coordination.

Initiation of a feasibility study begins when a local sponsor requests a study. If Congress has previously authorized studies of this type, a budget request is made for funding.

If no Congressional authorization for such a study exists, the local sponsor must contact their Congressional delegation and request that a new study authority be passed. Once the new authority is passed, the Corps can make a budget request for the study.

The Corps team develops the feasibility report through several iterations.

“Identify problems and opportunities; inventory and forecast conditions; formulate alternatives; evaluate alternatives; compare alternatives; and select a recommended plan – then repeat,” said Alicia Kirchner, chief of planning for the Corps’ Sacramento District. “That’s the engine that drives a Corps study forward.”

The draft report grows over time and is reviewed by top-level Corps experts, especially at five milestones in the study process.

The “Alternatives” milestone is the first goal. In order to get there, the team will:
• conduct public scoping meetings;
• establish a comprehensive list of problems and opportunities;
• forecast the future-without-project conditions;
• identify all suggested measures; and
• develop the broadest array of alternatives to be carried forward.

The second phase of the Corps study process is where the team:
• more fully develops best alternatives;
• identifies costs and accomplishments for each alternative;
• identifies the National Economic Development alternative (for non-ecosystem restoration projects);
• identifies non-federal support sources; and
• exercises quality control review.

Upon completion of these items, the team arrives at the “Tentatively Selected Plan” milestone.

The “Agency Decision” milestone is the third step for a Corps study, and requires:
• feasibility-level analysis;
• agency technical review and independent external review;
• additional public review and initial policy review; and
• assessment of all comments to verify or revise the Tentatively Selected Plan.

The study then travels to Washington D.C. where the Corps’ Civil Works Review Board must approve it for release to the Chief of Engineers, the commanding general for the Corps. The study is further honed at this fourth milestone by:
• feasibility-level analysis;
• feasibility-level design of Tentatively Selected Plan (and National Economic Development alternative plan, if different);
• certification of cost estimates;
• application of biological opinions;
• review of the final district report; and
• complete policy review.

The final product, an integrated feasibility study report, presents science-based decisions and the reasons that led to those decisions.

Once the Chief of Engineers signs off on the study, the Chief’s Report, the fifth and final Corps milestone of the study process, finalizes the Corps’ recommendation to be presented to Congress for authorization and funding consideration through the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works.