Environmental Projects in Urban Areas: Analysis to Support Corps of Engineers Project Planning and Budgeting

This report describes US Army Corps of Engineers planning and budget justification practices in coastal and estuarine environments—with a focus on urban settings—and explores the current and potential application of ecosystem services analysis to Corps decisionmaking.



Sept. 4, 2019



Reading time

2 minutes

Key Findings

Some ecosystem goods and services (EGS) affected by environmental improvement projects are not evaluated or used for decisionmaking.

Executive Summary

This report describes the planning and budget justification practices of the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) for coastal and estuarine environments, distinguishing between three distinct mission areas: Inland Waterways and Harbor (IWH) development; Coastal Storm and Flood Risk Management (CSFRM); and Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration (AER). The report identifies challenges to the inclusion of ecosystem goods and services (EGS) analysis in decisionmaking by the Corps, specifically in urban environments.

The report finds that bringing analysis of EGS into Corps’ planning and budget decisionmaking is constrained by the relatively narrow scope of defined purposes served by each mission area. In effect, there are often restrictions on the kinds of benefits that can be considered when recommending or justifying a plan for federal funding. Even if EGS were to be considered, limits on study duration and funding for analysis are likely to narrow the detail of EGS analyses.

Within these general constraints, opportunities exist for introducing EGS analyses into each of the mission areas:

  • EGS analyses in the IWH mission area can help the USACE rapidly evaluate the benefits of “beneficial reuse of dredged material” in order to encourage partners to pay the incremental costs of projects and project features that exceed the federal standard for reuse.
  • Similarly, in the CSFRM mission area, the ability to measure “incidental” EGS benefits might help motivate local cost-share partners to support “natural and nature-based feature” (NNBF) projects that offer a similar degree of storm protection as non-NNBF alternatives.
  • Consideration of urban EGS benefits under the AER mission area is possible but would likely require changes in the AER program. Corps’ AER projects are expected to recreate habitat in “nationally significant ecosystems,” which tend to be located away from urban areas. Analysis of mission-specific benefits from AER or IWH (for example, flood risk reduction) or EGS benefits (for example, water quality improvement) to justify an AER investment in urban areas would require further exploration of special congressional authorizations that would allow the Corps to (1) formulate and evaluate specific urban projects, or (2) develop programmatic permission for a new urban-centric business line that could consider a wider range of project benefits.

In light of these opportunities, but also with an eye to practical analytical approaches, the report recommends research to develop benefit indicators for EGS. Benefit indicators can be developed relatively quickly and cheaply to quantify things like the number of people benefiting from enhanced EGS, the scarcity of EGS in a particular community, and the number or value of properties enhanced by environmental improvement projects. Benefit indicators can be used to communicate the scope and significance of EGS to non-Corps budget authorities who may be able to fund projects that do not meet the Corps’ budget justification criteria, and to rank aquatic ecosystem restoration projects that have met the national significance test.

The report also proposes six sequential research and development activities that can produce benefit indicators for use in the Hudson Raritan Estuary, and describes how benefit indicators can be used to make the case and secure funding for urban area estuary improvement projects.

These activities include identification of project alternatives and opportunities, stakeholder demand for specific EGS improvements, assessment of biophysical relationships that link specific projects to changed EGS outcomes, and institutional analysis of pertinent regulatory authorities and funding streams. Based on the insight of stakeholders in the Hudson Raritan Estuary, several specific benefit indicators were discussed during a workshop held at the offices of the Hudson River Foundation on May 13, 2019. Notes from that workshop are included as Appendix A.


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