Within the realm of cultural resource management (CRM), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is both a land managing and regulatory agency. Overall, the USACE serves as the engineers of the Federal government and is part of the Department of Defense and the U.S. Army. The USACE conducts engineering activities for military purposes and domestic purposes, but I will only cover the domestic side of the USACE.
Roles of the USACE
As engineers for the government, the USACE is tasked with constructing and operating facilities and features related to water quality, water control, and navigation. To this end, the USACE is responsible for constructing and maintaining flood control levees, ship channels and harbors, reservoirs, locks and dams, and coastal barriers. Notable projects by the USACE include the Houston Ship Channel, the Mississippi River levee system, the Intracoastal Waterway, and the Galveston Seawall. These projects are generally cooperative efforts between local communities and the Federal government with the government providing a portion of the funds and the local community matching those funds. Prior to constructing a project, the USACE conducts a feasibility study that identifies a need for the project and assesses any impacts to the environment. Normally, this feasibility study will result in an environmental impact study (EIS) or environmental assessment (EA) as well as economic studies that outline the benefits or risks of a project to the local community and the nation. During the feasibility study, the USACE will also conduct cultural resource investigations for compliance with the NHPA. Once a project is constructed the USACE may be tasked with the operation and maintenance of these facilities, which may include the management of cultural resources. These projects are called Civil Works projects and make up a large part of what the USACE does. In the case of civil works projects, the undertakings are the construction projects themselves.
The other side of the USACE is regulatory in nature. As the agency tasked with securing the nation’s waterways, the USACE has also been tasked with enforcing Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act and Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Both of these laws are limited to what are termed “waters of the United States” which, with regard to the latter means all rivers, streams, their tributaries, and wetlands and with regard to the former, only navigable waters. Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act basically regulates the placement of obstacles to navigation within waters of the U.S. and designates the USACE as the permitting agency for these actions. Projects that require a USACE permit under Section 10 may include bridges, docks or piers, tunnels, pipelines, and navigation markers. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act regulates the discharge of sediment into, or filling of waters of the U.S. Many projects that require Section 10 permits may also require Section 404 permits. Projects typically only requiring a Section 404 permit may include the filling of wetlands to build roads or buildings, construction of drainage outfalls for residential developments, and culverts. These projects are only a few examples and due to the broad nature of the laws, several projects in this country require permits from the USACE, which is a large part of the CRM work in this country. For the regulatory side of the USACE, the issuing of the permit is the undertaking and since the permit is allowing impacts to take place, the USACE must consider those impacts with regard to cultural resources. The USACE does not issue permits to itself, so the vast majority of these are issued to private developers as well as other Federal and State agencies.
To accomplish its mission, the USACE employs a number of different professionals including engineers, real estate professionals, scientists, park rangers, surveyors, and project managers. The USACE is divided into regional divisions which are further divided into districts. The geographical coverage of a district may largely depend on its mission. For instance, the Galveston District is mostly focused on navigation and coastal development and therefore it only encompasses the counties in Texas that are roughly within 100 miles of the coast (in addition to small portions of three Louisiana Parishes that border the Sabine River between Texas and Louisiana). The Fort Worth District covers almost all of the remaining counties in Texas, but its focus is mostly on reservoirs and water/flood control. Divisions tend to be more regional in nature rather than focused on districts’ missions. So, the Fort Worth and Galveston Districts are within the Southwest Division, along with Tulsa and Little Rock rather than the same division as New Orleans or Jacksonville Districts which also focus primarily on navigation and coastal development. Each division is commanded by a General in the U.S. Army and the districts are commanded by a Colonel or Lieutenant Colonel. There are usually a few other regular Army personnel on staff at each district, but the majority of the staff in the USACE is civilian. Army civilians support the mission of the USACE all over the globe, even in war zones such as Afghanistan.
The USACE serves as a land managing agency for the properties it owns or maintains. Across the country, the USACE may own reservoirs, levees, locks, dams, or other lands related to water control. Often times the USACE may build recreation facilities on the land or use areas for wildlife habitat. These types of properties therefore require the USACE to employ or contract individuals to manage these lands. The Galveston District only owns two significant properties and these are the Addicks-Barker and Wallisville reservoirs. Addicks-Barker is not a persistent lake like other reservoirs, but serves mostly as a relief area for containing flood water to protect the city of Houston. Wallisville reservoir is the result of a salt water control dam on the Trinity River near where it dumps into Trinity Bay. This dam is used to control the amount saltwater that can go upstream and the amount of freshwater allowed into the bay. As a result of the dam, a reservoir has formed. Over the years, the USACE has conducted cultural resource investigations on the properties around the reservoirs and uses this information to monitor the health of the resources. Occasionally, the USACE must conduct maintenance on the facilities or build new facilities, in which case the USACE will conduct investigations as appropriate under Section 106.
Other lands that the Galveston District manages include dredge material placement areas (DMPA). These areas are needed due to the constant dredging that is necessary for maintaining navigable ship channels. As such, there are several of these along the Texas coast, as well as offshore DMPAs. DMPAs are either upland or open water sites around which a levee is built and material dredged from a ship channel is placed within. The USACE may also allow private entities to place dredge material into the DMPAs, such a shipping company that needs to dredge around their terminal. In the past, prior to the implementation of environmental laws, the DMPAs were not always kind to the environment. These days, USACE tries to find a “best use” for the dredged material such as building islands for bird habitat, creating tidal flats and marshlands, or creating offshore reef-like areas. This can be complicated since it is costly to move the dredge material very far, so DMPAs must be near where the dredging takes place. In the case of DMPAs, the USACE does not generally own these properties, but will assist private or public entities with purchasing and maintenance.
Internship at USACE
My position at the Galveston District is a Staff Archeologist. There are four other archeologists in this district, however only one of them performs as an archeologist. The other three archeologists started at the USACE similar to me, but have since been promoted to higher positions, such as my direct boss who is the Environmental Section Chief, another woman who is a Regulatory Section Chief, and the other who is a NEPA specialist and Environmental Lead. These three still maintain some contact with the field, but overall their responsibilities have broadened. The other Staff Archeologist and I are responsible for all of the cultural resource work for the district with civil works and regulatory projects. Since I am new, but have a strong background in consulting, I have been assigned to review all of the incoming permits, but have also been assigned a couple of civil works projects. On average, I review one or two permits per day, although they usually come in waves.
Regulatory projects basically consist of permits that are being requested by various entities ranging from Joe Public, who wants to build a boat dock, to an international energy conglomerate that wants to build a giant barge terminal. Requests for permits go through our regulatory division where they are assigned a project manager, who is ultimately putting together the permit/EA. The project manager will then notify all parties in the district to get comments on the undertaking. So, individuals in operations may be concerned about construction affecting navigation, or the biologists may be concerned about endangered species, and of course the archeologist is concerned about historic properties. I am given five days to review and respond to these notices, however if I identify historic properties or the need for an investigation, the applicant will have to wait until those are complete.
For my review, I have a GIS database of all the archaeological sites in our districts, previous cultural resource investigations, cemeteries, and previously issued permits. This information is provided by the state, but I also have to check the state’s current database, since my information may be up to a year out of date. I will also look at various maps including the USGS topographic map, aerial photography, and historic maps and photos. Most of this information is available online. If I have identified sites or previous investigations in the permit area, I will download the Texas site form for the site and pull the report from our library. Finally, I will look at the soils and geomorphology of the permit area and what that says about the possibility of historic properties being found. Then I must make a decision about what needs to be done and this depends on the scope of the permit action, the land use history of the permit area, and, to a small degree, the applicant. My determination is sent back to the regulatory project manager who then compiles all of the responses and issues a public notice. If I have required a survey to be done, I will also send them a letter to be forwarded to the applicant and their consultant. At this point, I often receive the results of their survey, which they have usually already coordinated with SHPO. Once I am satisfied that the applicant has provided us with enough information to meet our requirements under Section 106, I will let the project manager know that they are clear to proceed.
The USACE issues two kinds of permits, Individual Permits (IP) and Nationwide Permits (NWP). Understanding how these permits work is a mystery to many, even those that work with them day to day. Essentially, NWPs are blanket permits that cover very specific types of activities which the USACE has determined are not significant enough of an impact to warrant an IP. Things like pipelines, navigation aids, and some highways are under NWPs and do not require the applicant to provide a pre-construction notification (PCN) of their activities, they just have to comply with the conditions of the permit. While an applicant doesn’t have to issue a PCN, they do often request that the USACE determine what its jurisdiction is over the project, at which point the permit gets reviewed for cultural resources. Technically, if historic properties are going to be affected, the NWP must be elevated to an IP. This means the USACE must trust the applicant to comply, which most of them do since they know the rules and getting caught not following them is far worse. The USACE also does not have the resources to police all the activities within its jurisdiction, so by giving applicants more latitude, they get more compliance out of them. NWPs are updated and reissued every five years, so both applicants and regulators must be aware of any changes.
The civil works projects I have been assigned are in their final stages, so I am essentially wrapping up the large amount of work that others have done. I’ll describe these projects as an example of how the USACE is involved.
My first project concerns dredging for a ship channel in Texas City. Due to concerns about submerged archaeological resources, the USACE hired a consultant to do a survey of the affected area. As a result of the survey, they identified a shipwreck that was going to be adversely affected. Diving on the shipwreck and archival research established that the vessel was most likely the USS Westfield, a U.S. Naval vessel sunk during the Civil War. The site was determined to be eligible for inclusion in the NRHP and since the hazardous diving conditions precluded a normal recovery, the ship was dredged up and the material sorted in sieves. All of the recovered material was then sent to Texas A&M where it is being conserved for museums, the U.S. Navy, and for teaching purposes; however some of the material will be thrown away and some will be reburied to prevent it from ending up in the antiquities market. My job now is to oversee the last stages of conservation and ensure that the remaining tasks satisfy any agreements we have with Texas A&M, the U.S. Navy, and local museums, as well as meeting all of the requirements under the law. Specific tasks include arranging for the packaging and shipping of all the artifacts via trucks to the final resting place, finding a suitable location for reburying artifacts, and coordinating with other professionals involved on this project. While this job is mostly complete, it will expose me to the various aspects of contracting in the USACE and managing these tasks.
My second project is the Brazos Island Harbor ship channel that leads to Brownsville. This project involves the widening and deepening of the ship channel to accommodate larger vessels which will entail dredging and placement of this material into a DMPA. For cultural resources, much of the area has already been surveyed or impacted by previous projects. All of the dredged material is going into existing DMPAs and the only new impacts will be to part of Brazos Island which is at the inlet to the channel. The northern part of Brazos Island (also called Brazos Santiago) is listed on the NRHP as this location has been used sporadically throughout history by Spanish, Mexican, American, and Confederate armies and entrepreneurs as a strategic location for both military and commercial uses. The early settlements at Brazos Island, which has a natural harbor on the bay side, were instrumental in developing the ports of Brownsville and Port Isabel. Since most of the impacts to the land surrounding the channel were occurring in previously surveyed and impacted areas, it was only necessary to conduct a marine survey. A marine survey had been conducted about 10 years before and because of the way sediments shift in the Gulf of Mexico and the bays, cultural resources which were previously buried may now be visible to sonar. So, a consultant was hired to conduct the marine survey and they provided the results to the USACE, which we then coordinated with the SHPO. My remaining task involves finalizing a PA that outlines how to manage cultural resources that might be discovered during the construction phase.
My final project is overseeing the production of the final report for the Buckeye Knoll site in Victoria County. This site is one of the oldest Native American cemeteries in North America and was discovered while surveying the Victoria Barge Canal. Several years of fieldwork were conducted at the site to mitigate the adverse effects to the site. Due to this site’s significance to science, as well as its importance to Native American groups, several interested parties, including the Texas Archeological Society, the Society for American Archaeology, local politicians, Native American tribes, and the public became involved, resulting in a very politically charged process. That process was a big challenge for the USACE and in the end not every party was satisfied with the outcome. It is a good example of how the interests of science, the public, the developer, and cultures can collide during the Section 106 process. At this point, these issues have been settled and my task simply entails coordinating with the consultant on completing the final report of investigations.