Municipal Water Leader
Interview

Strengthening the Foundation of America’s Water Infrastructure An Interview with Lieutenant General Todd T. Semonite

For the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the past year has posed a series of challenges for the management of American waterways and water resources. A series of natural disasters—from Florida to Puerto Rico to Texas—destroyed lives and property and stressed our increasingly aging water infrastructure. The Army Corps has been essential to recovery efforts and to providing a vision for rebuilding critical infrastructure, securing essential water supplies, and mitigating future flood events. All the while, the Army Corps continues to facilitate innovative water resources development to the benefit of municipal water districts. Those efforts are led by Lieutenant General Todd T. Semonite.

Lt. Gen. Semonite became chief of engineers and commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 2016. As chief of engineers, he advises the secretary of the Army on general, combat, and geospatial engineering; construction; real property; public infrastructure; and natural resources science and management. As the Army Corps’ commanding general, he is responsible for more than 32,000 civilian employees and 700 military personnel who provide project management, construction support, and science and engineering expertise in more than 110 countries.

Lt. Gen. Semonite has had a distinguished career. He established the Army Talent Management Task Force and served as its first director, reforming the way the Army acquires, develops, employs, and retains a talented workforce. He was also the commanding general for Combined Security Transition Command–Afghanistan, responsible for the building of the Afghan army and police through management of a $13 billion budget to support a force of 352,000 individuals. Prior to that command, Lt. Gen. Semonite served as the deputy chief of engineers and the deputy commanding general of the Army Corps. He has also served as commanding general, South Atlantic Division.

Municipal Water Leader’s editor-in-chief, Kris Polly, spoke with Lt. Gen. Semonite about the role of the Army Corps in securing water supplies for municipalities, addressing aging water infrastructure, and working with municipal water agencies and flood control districts.

Lieutenant General Semonite surveying damage from Hurricane Harvey.

Kris Polly: What are the Army Corps’ top priorities for 2018?

Lt. Gen. Semonite: The top priorities for the Army Corps are to support national security, deliver integrated water resources solutions, reduce disaster risk, and prepare for tomorrow. Congress has passed a massive, bipartisan budget bill that includes provisions to make the nation safer, stronger, and more secure in the face of worseningcatastrophic weather-related disasters. The $17.4 billion Long-Term Disaster Recovery Investment Plan Supplemental is key to helping communities and regions recovering from federally declared disasters, and we are honored to be doing much of the recovery activities. We are actively working on internal policy and administrative changes that will improve infrastructure delivery. It’s all about delivery! We earn our credibility, our reputation, and our value by delivering desired results on time and on budget for our stakeholders. As such, we are taking a fresh look at our authorities, policies, regulations, and procedures in order to identify opportunities for increased efficiency and effectiveness. This will include efforts to reduce redundancy and delegate authority for decisionmaking to the lowest appropriate level in order to accelerate project and program delivery.

I also want to point out that we are working in more than 110 countries to support our combatant commanders with civil works, military missions, and water resources research and development expertise, which all contribute greatly to our nation’s security and prosperity. We are proud to serve this great nation and our fellow citizens, and we are proud of the work the Army Corps does to support America’s domestic and foreign policies.

Kris Polly: What are your goals as commanding general and chief of engineers?

Lt. Gen. Semonite: In my first year as the commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, I spent a good deal of energy and effort strengthening the foundation of our organization. As with any structure, our foundation is our strength—the bedrock on which our present rests and our future is built. For the Army Corps, this means having the discipline to do routine things to a high standard routinely. It means demonstrating that we are reliable and worthy partners. It means we earn our stakeholders’ trust in all we do, from top to bottom, big to small, tactical to strategic. It means having teams and processes that ask and answer the right questions, like, “Do we have the capabilities, capacity, and authorities before we launch?” And, it means empowering leaders to think strategically because they are confident in the competence and integrity of everyone within our ranks.

Now in year 2, I am setting conditions for the Corps to be a nimble, reliable federal option for decades to come; a world-class engineering organization that citizens are proud of and that maintains the public’s trust consistently; and an enterprise that can deliver on our vision, which is engineering solutions for the nation’s toughest challenges. I’m doing this by leading revolutionary change within the Corps. We are identifying and aggressively pursuing a range of new initiatives that will equip our organization with the policy, tools, training, and resources needed to deliver significant projects and programs for our nation that support national security; to deliver integrated water resource solutions, to reduce disaster risk, and to prepare for tomorrow. We are also improving how we engage with our external stakeholders. We are much more visible, present, and approachable.

As to my role as the chief of engineers, my goal is to empower the more than 90,000 engineer soldiers who proudly serve our nation with the training, equipment, and technologies they need to fulfill their missions, which include combat engineering; general construction engineering; geospatial engineering; and the specialty engineer capabilities of prime power (electricity generation and distribution), firefighting, engineer diving, and search and rescue. All these services are to support our nation’s priorities.

Kris Polly: What are some the biggest challenges you have faced since assuming the position in 2016?

Lt. Gen. Semonite: Like any large organization that intends to be world class now and long into the future, we have a strategic plan. One of the biggest challenges we, like similar large-scale organizations, face is evaluating progress and translating that strategy into tangible results. To move our strategy from great ideas to desired results, we are doubling down in five areas: time, cost, quality, transparency, and accountability.

Another challenge we, like similar large-scale organizations, face is reputational risk. Blogs, tweets, text messages, online petitions, podcasts, and digital videos are all extremely important means of communication for citizens. Although most who use these means of communication are truthful, some spread information that is demonstrably false. We have redoubled our efforts to correct the record when it needs correcting by providing accurate, verifiable data and context. We are also making sure our personnel are visible and engaged with the public we serve.

Kris Polly: What are some big picture steps the Army Corps is taking to reduce the nation’s flood risks and increase resilience to natural disasters?

Lt. Gen. Semonite: There were more significant and costly disasters in close succession in 2017 than we’ve seen in the history of the United States, with nearly a third of a trillion dollars in damages, according to our partners at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Approximately 4,000 Army Corps professionals have worked tirelessly to help those affected by the numerous hurricanes, fires, floods, and mudslides that we have responded to since August 2017. Nearly $5.3 billion in FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] mission assignment funds were provided to us for response and recovery operations for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria; Northern and Southern California wildfires and flooding; central United States flooding; and Northwestern flooding. I am deeply honored to be leading such a dedicated team of professionals committed to making a positive difference in the lives of the most vulnerable. We are using our response to the recent series of disasters to evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of our actions to identify important lessons learned for future responses.

Damage from Hurricane Harvey.

Take the central United States flooding: On March 28, 2018, the Corps Water Management team began conducting a Lower Ohio/Mississippi River flood control operation and managed releases from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kentucky Lake and our Louisville District’s Lake Barkley to mitigate downstream flood impacts and specifically reduce the crest at Cairo, Illinois. Throughout the event, Corps personnel and levee sponsors conducted area levee patrols to identify and monitor sand boils, seepage, levee slides, and erosion on the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers. The Corps also opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway in March 2018 to divert high river flows away from New Orleans.

I would be remiss if I didn’t describe the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. FEMA assigned nearly $4 billion in missions to the Corps for Hurricanes Irma and Maria response and recovery efforts (47 mission assignments totaling $181 million for Hurricane Irma and 46 mission assignments totaling $3.8 billion for Hurricane Maria). Temporary emergency power, temporary roofing, debris management, dam and levee safety, assessments, response, and power restoration are all missions that were assigned to us.

Perhaps of most interest to your readers is our actions with Guajataca Dam, owned and operated by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. Hurricane Maria caused a significant rise in the water level of the dam, which resulted in overflow of the spillway. The spillway structure was compromised, and the surrounding area began to erode, posing immediate risk to 70,000 residents. Corps teams placed over 500 Jersey barriers and over 1,300 super sand bags to cease any further erosion and allow for long-term repair of the spillway. Under a FEMA mission assignment, the Army Corps is in the process of contracting six additional interim risk reduction measures, including grouting spillway slabs and stabilizing intake slopes to reduce risk during Puerto Rico’s wet season, with a completion date of July 2019.

Remember, disaster preparedness and response, as well as flood risk management, is a shared responsibility among individual residents and citizens, municipal or county and state entities, and the highest levels of federal government. We are using our response to the recent series of disasters to evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of our actions to glean important lessons learned for future response. The Army Corps conducts emergency activities under the Stafford Disaster and Emergency Assistance Act and Public Law 84-99. As part of the National Response and Recovery Framework, we provide Emergency Support Function #3 (Public Works and Engineering) in support of FEMA.

In every planning, design, construction, operations and maintenance, and research and development activity we undertake, we use risk-informed analyses. Sustainability and resilience are embedded in our organization’s four overarching goals. Our goals are (1) support national security, (2) deliver integrated water resource solutions, (3) reduce disaster risk, and (4) prepare for tomorrow. We collaborate with many diverse stakeholders who, more likely than not, have competing interests, and we consider economic benefits; ecosystem quality and health; and most importantly, public safety for all our civil works projects and programs.

No single agency has all the answers, but leveraging multiple programs and perspectives can provide a cohesive solution. That’s one of the reasons we have programs like Silver Jackets. Silver Jackets teams are composed of interdisciplinary professionals representing local, state, federal, and tribal agencies with mission areas in hazard mitigation, emergency management, floodplain management, natural resources management, and conservation. Federal participation typically includes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, the National Weather Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

I am passionate about our leadership role in the risk reduction, disaster response, and recovery space, and that passion is reflected in our relationships with sister agencies, academia, and nonprofit organizations, as well as our participation in multidisciplinary working groups, such as FEMA’s Mitigation Framework Leadership Group and our organization’s Flood Risk Management Program, housed within our Institute for Water Resources (IWR). IWR has been a leader in the development of strategies and tools for planning and executing the Army Corps’ water resources planning and water management programs.

Kris Polly: Please describe some of the Army Corps’ programs and efforts that focus on renewing the nation’s aging water supply and flood control infrastructure. Are there any key challenges and successes you would like to highlight?

Lt. Gen. Semonite: Much of our nation’s infrastructure remains well beyond its design life, yet the requirements have never been greater. Today, we have over $96 billion in construction requirements, representing the federal share on a multitude of projects, and our fiscal year 2018 appropriation is $6.8 billion. We have close to 100 ongoing feasibility studies that, if authorized, will simply add to the federal budget requirement. At current funding levels, it will take us more than 100 years to address the backlog of authorized projects, and this is simply unacceptable. To most effectively deliver the nation’s infrastructure needs, the Army Corps must be more innovative and consider new ways to finance and incentivize investments in water resources infrastructure. With our partners and stakeholders, we must remove barriers to the development and improvement of our critical public infrastructure.

The Corps has been working with the administration on this issue and was instrumental in developing legislative proposals that are part of President Trump’s infrastructure package. The Army Corps’ Civil Works program is embracing the opportunity provided through the administration’s American Infrastructure Initiative not only to improve our infrastructure but also to modernize the agency to better meet the future needs of the nation. The infrastructure proposal includes an incentives (grants) program with the goal of encouraging increased state, local, and private investment in infrastructure. A grants program could transform and modernize the way water resources infrastructure is designed, built, and maintained by incentivizing nonfederal entities to assume control and responsibility for project delivery.

We are revolutionizing our internal policy and administrative processes to improve infrastructure delivery. In spite of constraints, we continue to innovatively operate and maintain aged navigation, flood risk reduction, and hydropower infrastructure because the nation needs us to, but I am advocating for even more investment.

Navigation remains a key business line for us and for the nation. The Corps manages more than 12,000 miles of inland and intracoastal waterways. Nearly 550 million tons of cargo or 16 percent of domestic freight moves on inland waterways, so the scope is tremendous.

On the inland waterways, our largest project continues to be the Olmsted Locks and Dam on the Ohio River near its junction with the Mississippi. The project replaces 1920s-era locks and dams 53 and 52 and will greatly reduce tow and barge delays through the busiest stretch of river in America's inland waterways. This critical national project will be completed in August 2018.

The deepening of the Panama Canal has created new opportunities and work at coastal ports as we continue to deepen harbors to accommodate the new larger ships. Harbor deepening projects continue at Charleston and Savannah, and we are engaged in ongoing studies for deepening projects in other U.S. coastal locations.

Kris Polly: What has been the Army Corps’ traditional role in water supply storage, and what should it be in the future?

Lt. Gen. Semonite: The Army Corps has a long history of water resources management, including water supply storage. The Corps has more than 400 lake and river projects located in 43 states. Approximately 36 percent of stored surface water is behind a Corps dam; however, the primary responsibility for providing safe and reliable water supply falls on state and local governments; this responsibility includes the financial responsibility for developing water supplies. The Corps’ Water Supply program is intended to work in partnership with nonfederal water entities and in accordance with law and policy to manage Corps reservoirs and provide municipal and industrial water supply storage in a cost-efficient and environmentally and socially responsible manner. Currently, there are 136 reservoirs with 9.8 million acre-feet of authorized municipal and industrial water supply storage in 25 states. This storage can yield 6.9 billion gallons per day—an amount that is sufficient for the daily household needs of more than 100 million people.

Through our municipal and industrial water supply mission, we help supply water to homes, businesses, factories, and many other types of users. We also work closely with states and local communities to lessen the effect of droughts, particularly in areas where shortages are common, such as in the Southwest and parts of the Southeast.

Approximately 80 percent of the water consumed in the United States is used to irrigate crops, feed livestock, and support other agricultural uses. Irrigation storage in Corps reservoirs is used to irrigate approximately 2.4 million acres of land. This important storage is managed by the Bureau of Reclamation and provides irrigation water to western farmers who produce 60 percent of the nation’s vegetables and 25 percent of its fruits and nuts.

Water supply storage in a Corps reservoir aids communities by providing safe, reliable sources of storage that benefit families and the nation’s businesses and contribute to the effective functioning of the economy. We also provide advice and technical assistance to state and local governments, helping communities and businesses use water resources more efficiently and cost effectively.

As to our water supply role in the future, we operate within the project purposes and laws enacted by Congress. We will also continue to seek ways to operate within the existing authorities and in partnership with our many stakeholders to find opportunities to provide water supply storage in conjunction with the planning and operation of multipurpose reservoir projects to meet today’s needs and those in the future.

Kris Polly: How is the Army Corps facilitating water supply storage opportunities for state and local entities?

Lt. Gen. Semonite: Typically, the Corps facilitates these opportunities by evaluating requests for reallocations of storage and implementing those reallocations if appropriate. The Corps also provides advice and support to state and local agencies, businesses, farmers, and ranchers to help them develop more-effective methods for managing water resources, thereby reducing demands on existing water supply storage.

Kris Polly: What should every local and state water or flood control agency know about working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on water supply and flood control projects?

Lt. Gen. Semonite: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is undergoing a period of revolution; not just reform, process improvement, or innovation, but revolution. For over 243 years, the Army Corps has adapted to meet the challenges of the day; today is no exception. We must revolutionize to remain relevant and ready for the challenges of tomorrow. The bottom line is that the great team of soldiers and civilians of the Corps come to work every day with the safety and security of the nation and their fellow citizens in their hearts and minds, but I am working hard to maximizing our value proposition for our stakeholders. In essence, we are not just strengthening our foundation, which is composed of our culture, people, processes, policies, resources, and relationships; we are radically upgrading our foundation. The byproduct of this new foundation is our ability to deliver our projects and programs like we have never done before. We look forward to working with our many current and future stakeholders to address existing water infrastructure challenges and to work toward tomorrow’s solutions.

We see on the horizon the opportunity for likely unprecedented growth due to multiple emergency supplemental appropriations from Congress for disaster recovery activities; President Trump’s American Infrastructure Initiative, which includes $200 billion in federal funds and the elimination of regulatory barriers; and increased funding for U.S. Department of Homeland Security infrastructure and U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs medical facilities. We are identifying and aggressively pursuing initiatives that are equipping our professionals with the policies, training, resources, and tools that are empowering them to deliver for our stakeholders.

We truly want to be partners when working together, and we value the importance of two-way communications in making projects and programs better and more efficient for our stakeholders, including our water supply and flood control partners. It's important, though, to also understand that infrastructure needs around the nation far exceed the currently available federal funds to address all those needs. Like other federal agencies, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must prioritize where to apply its resources. Projects that move forward are those that provide the greatest economic, environmental, and lifesaving return on federal investment. There are many good authorized and proposed projects around the nation that the Corps has not been able to support because those projects don’t rise to the level of execution based on their expected return on federal investment. With the current administration’s infrastructure proposals, state and local agencies may be able to take advantage of the push to modernize the nation’s infrastructure and get some of these projects done.