It was April 22, 1970, when 20 million Americans joined then Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson to mark the first Earth Day. And now, 40 years later, we’re still marking the occasion. For those of us who are part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it’s one more day in our journey toward ensuring that our actions are sustainable and that we are the very best stewards we can be of this country, of this planet.
The challenges we face are enormous – climate change, renewable energy, green jobs, green remediation, energy reduction, just to name a few. But the opportunities for an organization like ours are equally enormous. We are the nation’s environmental engineer. No other federal agency is addressing environmental issues of the same scope and magnitude as we are, but that’s not to say that we’re doing it alone. We know that addressing the immense environmental challenges of the 21st century requires working in close collaboration and partnership with others. We continually seek to partner with other federal and state agencies, non-governmental environmental organizations and academia to find innovative solutions to environmental issues.
Since that first Earth Day, Americans have increasingly become aware of the need to be “green.” That goes for USACE as well. We have been looking at the environmental impacts of our work for four decades, going back to the days of Lt. Gen. Frederick J. Clarke, the 43rd Chief of Engineers, who served from 1969 to 1973, and Lt. Gen. Henry J. Hatch, the 48th Chief of Engineers, who, in the early 1990’s, laid out a very eloquent vision for taking care of the environment, a vision that set the foundation for our work today. “Environmental ethics and values must be more than an overlay. They must be a bone-deep part of our way of doing business,” Lt. Gen. Hatch said in 1992. Sound familiar? It should. Lt. Gen. Robert B. Flowers, our 50th Chief of Engineers, said much the same when he introduced our Environmental Operating Principles in 2002, the same principles focusing on sustainability that we continue to apply to all our work today. “We have placed environmental values on an equal footing with economic and engineering concerns in support of environmentally sustainable development,” Flowers said.
The principles, every bit as valid today as they were eight years ago, can’t be an after thought, or a “nice-to-have” thought that we include at the end, they must be considered at the very beginning of each and every project we undertake. The projects we’re undertaking will have lasting impact. Our personnel at the Institute for Water Resources are working collaboratively with other federal agencies and scientists from around the world on several different projects that address climate change challenges. We’ve just hosted an international workshop on designing projects to be resilient in the face of climate variability; we’re planning a workshop on how best to use the climate information that’s being produced; we’re working with the Council on Environmental Quality as it develops a national climate change adaptation strategy; and we’re going to test some new adaptation ideas on projects this year. We’ve established a greenhouse gas reduction target for the Corps of Engineers that addresses the unique challenges posed by our Civil Works sites. The target calls for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 23 percent between now and 2020. Achieving that target will allow us to meet the requirements of Executive Order 13514, Federal Leadership in Environment, Energy and Economic Performance, which is President Barack Obama’s plan to make the federal government more sustainable. We have two energetic sustainability leaders on board now at the headquarters and are discussing including this skill set at each of our divisions to spearhead our sustainability initiatives across the Corps. A number of our districts are following suit.
And the list goes on – the U.S. Green Building Council presented a Leadership Award to a team of Corps employees for their work in transitioning the Army from the Sustainable Project Rating Tool to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards for all military construction projects; our Formerly Used Defense Sites team in Alaska District won the Secretary of the Army Environmental Restoration Team award for its work at Tanaga Island; and we just signed a new memorandum of understanding with The Conservation Fund to promote enhanced conservation and balanced management of our nation’s water resources. All of this shows that although Earth Day has been around for 40 years, the challenges, and opportunities, continue. We will continue to be on the cutting edge of the Army when it comes to taking care of the environment and promoting the sustainability ethic, and not just on Earth Day.