As the federal official responsible for managing federal lands and maintaining federal levees operated by the Corps of Engineers along the Columbia River shoreline, I’ve had many discussions with Tri-City leaders, economic development groups and private citizens about the decades-long efforts to return federal lands to local control.
I am writing to assure you that the Corps of Engineers has no position at this time on the proposed transfer of Corps-managed federal land to local governments.
I also must ensure that everyone affected understands the Corps’ mission purposes of these property holdings, the complexities of federal land transfers, and the operation and maintenance costs of the levee system protecting the Tri-Cities.
Land Transfer Authorization, Costs and Legal Requirements
In 1996 Congress authorized the Corps to transfer about 1,380 acres to local Tri-City governments.
Still in effect, this authorization requires that local governments pay the associated administrative costs, including compliance with environmental laws, cultural resource protection laws, and land surveys.
Due to these costs and other issues, most of the park areas have been leased to the cities, rather than transferred.
The Levee System
It is important to understand that the Columbia River levees in the Tri-Cities are a part of the McNary Dam Project, serving multiple mission purposes that include flood risk management, and would remain classified as federal civil works projects.
Any modifications to these levees would still require federal permission even if transferred to local governments.
Maintenance and periodic engineering inspections of these levees, which are complex systems, would become the responsibility of the new owners.
The Corps of Engineers currently spends approximately $1.3 million per year to maintain these levees and pumping stations, a job which requires six full-time federal employees.
Also, the pump stations in the Tri-City levee system are nearing the end of their service life.
During the next 10 years, they will need to be replaced at a cost of about $18 million. That cost will be assumed by the owner, which is currently the federal government.
Our Commitment to You
As a steward of public resources, the Corps of Engineers recognizes that transferring federal lands to local communities can benefit both the local government and the federal government.
However, these transfers that involve essential life and safety infrastructure are complicated, and all of the consequences — positive and negative — should be fully understood by local citizens.
Lt. Col. Damon Delarosa is Commander of the Walla Walla District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.