How the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Works

Missions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Martha Militano (left) signs a right-of-entry form authorizing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove the remains of her home after Hurricane Sandy.
Martha Militano (left) signs a right-of-entry form authorizing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove the remains of her home after Hurricane Sandy.
U.S. Army Corp of Engineers

The Army Corps of Engineers continues to serve in critical capacities in both military and civilian life. To support the military, the Corps is the chief engineer and builder of military barracks and fortifications abroad. The Corps also plays a central role in post-war reconstruction efforts in places like Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also responsible for remediation efforts to remove toxic waste from former military sites in the U.S. and abroad.

Since the 1950s, the Corps has served a diplomatic and foreign aid mission as the engineering lead on infrastructure projects worldwide. The Corps has built roads, highways, railroads, airports, ports and water systems in countries from the Middle East to Africa and East Asia.

The Corps remains the chief conservation agency for America's rivers, coastlines, lakes and wetlands. It operates more than 600 dams — including large hydroelectric power generators — maintains 12,000 miles (19,312 kilometers) of inland rivers and canals, manages 926 coastal and inland harbors, and preserves tens of thousands of acres of wetlands through its regulatory oversight [source: USACE].

Disaster planning and relief continues to be a major mission. In addition to clearing away debris after a storm, the Corps is charged by FEMA with delivering truckloads of bottled water and bagged ice to disaster victims. It also builds temporary housing for displaced victims and contributes to reconstruction efforts. In the wake of the levee failures in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, the Corps conducted a $13 billion overhaul of the levee system [source: Cart].

Any construction project that alters the shoreline of a river, is located near or within a wetland, or requires the dredging of a body of water, must receive a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers [source: USACE].

The agency also conducts scientific research and technological development, mostly pertaining to water conservation, geology and ecology. It opened the Waterways Experiment Station (WES) in Vicksburg, Miss. following the Great Flood of 1927. The WES campus, which is now the headquarters of the Engineer Research and Development Center, is home to five separate R&D labs operated by the Corps studying everything from hydraulics to information technology, with additional research centers in Virginia, Illinois and New Hampshire [source: USACE].

The Army Corps of Engineers helped build the backbone of the U.S. water infrastructure, and has saved countless lives through its disaster planning efforts, but the agency is not without its critics.