Insights: Edward E. Belk - Chief, Operations and Regulatory Division Directorate of Civil Works, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Edward E. Belk, Jr. currently serves as the Chief of Operations and Regulatory Division for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C. He also provides leadership and oversight for activities and programs within the Corps’ Lakes and Rivers and North Atlantic Regional Integration Teams. Selected by the Secretary of the Army into the Senior Executive Service in May 2012, Mr. Belk provides national oversight of the development, resourcing and delivery of Operations and Maintenance (O&M) programs for the Civil Works infrastructure portfolio and for Corps operational programs such as hydroelectric power, public recreation, environmental restoration, wildlife management and the regulatory oversight of waterways and wetlands. Previous to this, Belk served as Director of Programs for the Mississippi Valley Division (MVD) and Mississippi River Commission (MRC) in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He was the principal advisor to the Commander, MVD, and President, MRC, for the development, defense and execution of the Civil Works Program across the twelve states served by the Mississippi Valley Division. He provided leadership and supervision for the Programs Directorate with regional staff oversight for programs, planning, operations, real estate and project management activities in the Division’s six subordinate District commands located in St. Paul, Rock Island, St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans. Belk has extensive experience in the development and delivery of large, complex water resource solutions (including navigation, flood risk management, coastal restoration and ecosystem restoration sectors) across the full spectrum of program life cycle (planning, design, real estate acquisition, environmental compliance, construction and operation/maintenance). Along the way, he has shown himself to be adept at developing and strengthening strategic relationships at the local, regional and national levels. These relationships enable mission execution and program delivery. Notably, Belk has also completed two tours in Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he served as the senior U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civilian in the seven Provinces of northern Iraq and senior advisor to the Commander, Gulf Region North District, with headquarters initially in Mosul and later in Tikrit. Belk holds Master of Science in Engineering Management and a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering, both from Christian Brothers University. Additionally, he is a Registered Professional Engineer in the State of Mississippi. A recipient of many significant awards during his tenure at USACE, there is arguably no other individual within the USACE with more knowledge and experience in the effort to properly maintain, upgrade and improve our inland waterways. Listen in this month as Edward Belk weighs in on the USACE mission, its goals, successes and the many challenges that still loom ahead.
Tell us a little about USACE: How many individuals are under your umbrella – civilian and uniformed?
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) employees about 37,000 dedicated civilians and Soldiers that deliver engineering services to customers in more than 90 countries.
What is your primary mission? Where are you headquartered?
Headquartered in Washington, D.C., USACE provides vital public engineering services in peace and war to strengthen our Nation’s security, energize the economy and reduce risks from disasters. Additionally, USACE has nine division or regional offices; 43 district offices; six main engineering, research and development, finance and technical centers; the 249th Engineer Battalion; and the 412th and 416th Theater Engineer Commands. USACE primary Civil Works missions are Navigation, Flood Risk Management and Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration, but we also have important Hydropower, Emergency Management, Environmental Stewardship, Recreation, Water Supply and Regulatory missions.
What is the primary source for your mariners - military, merchant marine or a healthy mix of both?
USACE primary navigation responsibilities include planning and constructing new navigation channels and locks and dams, and dredging to maintain channel depths at U.S. harbors and on inland waterways. We operate and maintain 12,000 miles of inland and intracoastal waterways and navigable channels, including 192 commercial lock and dam sites, and we are responsible for ports and waterways in 41 states. In partnership with local port authorities, USACE personnel oversee dredging and construction projects at hundreds of ports and harbors at an average annual cost of more than $1 billion. USACE dredges more than 250 million cubic yards of material each year to keep the nation’s waterways navigable. Much of this dredged material is reused for environmental restoration projects including the creation of wetlands.
Tell us about the USACE fleet? How many vessels do you operate and how many of those are dedicated dredges?
USACE owns and operates approximately 2,900 vessels, ranging from skiffs to tugs barges, to self-propelled oceangoing hopper dredges. Of these, there are eleven dredges consisting of a mix of hopper, dustpan, sidecasting, special purpose and cutterhead dredges (Yaquina, Essayons, Wheeler, McFarland, Murden, Merritt, Goetz, Hurley, Jadwin, Potter and Currituck).
What percentage of your funding goes toward projects that are primarily (if not totally) accomplished by the Corps internally and what percentage do you sub out to others?
Public Law 95-269 (1978) requires the Secretary of the Army to have dredging and related work done by contract if the Secretary determines private industry has the capability to do such work and it can be done at a reasonable price and in a timely manner. To carry out emergency and national defense work the Secretary shall retain only the minimum federally owned fleet. Accordingly, the majority of dredging projects accomplished by USACE are performed by private industry dredges. The rule of thumb is that about 85 percent of the dredging is performed by contracts, the other 15 percent by USACE-owned dredges. For FY14 - the latest year we have finalized data – it was 91 percent of expenditures for dredging was by contract, the other 9 percent was by USACE-owned dredges. While most of our lock operations and some maintenance is performed with in-house forces, a significant portion of our coastal and inland navigation work on structures is performed by contract.
One issue today facing some waterways is that USACE funding is (primarily) based on tonnage numbers alone. Some of the smaller waterways – AIWA for example, directly parallel to I-95 and potentially a valuable shortsea shipping corridor, say that they can’t get the tonnage if they don’t have the maintenance dredging to maintain draft. What can be done to change that metric?
There are many factors that are evaluated when funding projects including project conditions, commercial marine traffic, subsistence harbors, harbors of refuge, commercial fishing, public transportation (passenger ferries), energy generation and consumption and use by other Federal or state agencies.
Tell our readers what the biggest priority for USACE going forward in 2016?
From a Navigation perspective, it is critical to keep the Federal navigation channels, waterways and locks open to provide for the safe and reliable movement of commercial vessels, as well as meeting commercial navigation demands in the future. This, of course, needs to be performed in an environmentally acceptable, cost effective and efficient manner.
What’s the most significant challenge to the USACE in 2016 – is that aligned with your biggest priority? And, looking five years down the road, will those challenges remain the same?
The most significant challenge is the asset management of aging infrastructure including locks, dams and navigation channels due to the age of the facilities for prior funding limitations.
I understand that the Corps is trying to improve its data collection at lock sites. This is important to industry, but why is it also important to the Corps?
In order to most efficiently maintain USACE locks and dams, it is important that there is relevant, accurate data to help guide investments in our existing lock infrastructure and determine the need for infrastructure improvements. It is also important to have timely data to understand and determine the impacts of lock and channel performance on commerce, and allows USACE to better-understand where the system may experience navigation closures and delays, which affect the overall inland waterways system reliability.
The U.S. Department of Transportation and its Maritime Administration predict that freight will increase significantly on all modes ahead, but often the Corps’ tonnage numbers can be two to three years behind, making it hard to calculate future freight needs and logistics. What can be done to square those numbers?
The data are assembled from many sources, but mostly from the Department of Commerce and other Federal Agencies. There is a lot of data and since many critical decisions are based on the data, it is essential that the data is carefully evaluated and verified as well as involve trend analysis. Extensive data from projects experiencing rapid growth or decline is reported to USACE staff regularly.
Based on the record FY 16 funding levels, it appears that the Corps can fund all four of the top priority projects (Olmsted, Lower Mon, Kentucky and Chickamauga) at full, efficient levels, but this is up to the Corps to decide. Just what will be the plan for this year?
The FY 2016 Workplan and FY2017 President’s Budget are under development and information will not be available until they are released by the President on February 9, 2016. (Editor’s Note: MarineNews was headed to the printer at that time).
The Waterways Council, Inc. (WCI) and its members and stakeholders pushed and prodded until the U.S. Senate passed a 9-cent increase to the barge diesel fuel user fee. Effective April 1, 2015, the 9-cent-increase should add around $40 million annually to the IWTF, augmented by another $40 million in matching funds. How much of a help is this for the mission in the coming years?
The additional funding from the $0.09 per gallon diesel fuel tax increase to a total of $0.29 per gallon is estimated to generate an additional $35 million per year. This would enable construction and major rehabilitation of justified inland waterways projects to proceed at a faster rate and be completed sooner, the reduction in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund share of the Olmsted Locks and Dam project as authorized in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, 2014 and could also enable other projects to move at a faster pace to improve the Inland Waterways System.
The WCI applauded the final agreement for an FY 2016 Omnibus Appropriations bill that funds the Corps of Engineers’ Civil Works program under the Energy & Water Development Appropriations bill. FY ’16 funding for the Corps’ Civil Works mission is $5.99 billion, and Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF)-supported projects should receive record level funding of $405.2 million for priority navigation projects in FY ’16. Looking further at federal funding, on the Navigation Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP), Statement of Manager language makes clear that “the next appropriate step is to complete PED” (Pre-Construction Engineering and Design) and requires monthly briefings for the committees on any economic update or re-analysis that is done for the project. The authority of the Corps will be the deciding factor on where the funding will be allocated. How will that process move forward?
USACE provided $50,000 in the FY 2015 Workplan to determine how to proceed with updating project costs and economics, and completing a decision document. A decision on allocating additional funding for the project will be made upon completion of the decision document.