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For country and Corps: New Madrid resident, R.D.James, directing Army civil works

June 19, 2020   Standard Democrat

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For country and Corps: New Madrid resident, R.D. James, directing Army civil works


Standard Democrat – Sikeston, MO – 6/19/20 – Jill Bock


NEW MADRID, Mo. — The first two years as assistant secretary of the Army (civil works) took R.D. James to each of the nation’s 43 Corps of Engineer districts. He traveled to Guam and Puerto Rico, walked the halls of the Pentagon and Congress and talked with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office.


But the small Southeast Missouri town of New Madrid is still home.


James was confirmed by the Senate on Jan. 30, 2018, and sworn in as the 12th assistant secretary of the Army for civil works on Feb. 5, 2018. It is a job he said he has spent a lifetime preparing for.


Trained as a civil engineer, James took an early interest in drainage issues as he worked in business and agriculture. His background and interest in flood control led to his nomination by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to the Mississippi River Commission, which oversees improvements along the river.


“I have 37 years of experience on the Mississippi River Commission and dealing with Corps of Engineer issues throughout that time. I got to see the positive things about the Corps of Engineers and I got to see the things that I questioned whether they were doing it right or not,” James said.


In his new role, James supervises the Corps of Engineers. Now, he is the one being questioned.


“Whether something goes good or something goes bad I am responsible to both the White House and the Congress for everything that happens with the Corps of Engineers,” he said. “So I have to stay on top with what is happening.”


James begins his work day at 6:30 a.m. in his office on the third floor of the Pentagon. After going through his mail and emails and responding when needed, he meets with his staff to review what was accomplished in the past 24 hours and what the next 24 hours may bring.


However, James said, things seem to change hourly.


James said much of his time is spent at his desk reviewing and signing off — either positively or negatively — on Corps projects.


There is time spent in preparation and discussion with members of the House and Senate. His input is sought in hearings with the House and the Senate subcommittees on environment and public works. Twice a year he appears before the House and Senate appropriation committees.


Three times he has been to the White House. He said he has found Trump to be low-key and a pleasure to visit with.


“You see him sometimes and he is aggravated especially with the media people, but the three times I’ve met with him, I was comfortable from the minute he walked in the room,” he said. “I can’t mention what the meetings were about but they were very good, down-to-earth, common -sense meetings.”


James said there are many, many briefings to attend. These range from projects and plans of the Corps of Engineers to twice weekly meetings with the Secretary of the Army and a group of three and four-star generals on Army war preparedness.


Budgeting is one of his biggest tasks.


“I guess the biggest surprise that I have had since I got there is the oversight by the Office of Management and Budget not only in the budgeting process but also in the management of all agencies,” he said.


James explained the OMB is part of the executive branch of government. He described it as the eyes and ears of the president on budgeting and management matters.


“I knew the Corps of Engineers prepared a budget annually and I knew I was supposed to review and finalize the budget but I found when I finished what I thought was finished that budget goes to OMB,” he said. “Then I actually have to negotiate with OMB on what projects stay in the budget and are funded and what projects do not stay in the budget therefore they are not funded.”


It is a difficult process, he admitted. Even with a $5 billion a year budget, James noted the backlog of authorized Corps projects is almost $800 billion.


But he takes pride in the work accomplished by the Corps through his office.


When he took the job as assistant secretary of the Army (civil works), James said his number one priority was the infrastructure along U.S. waterways.


“If locks and dams fail and stop river commerce, we don’t have enough trucks nor rail to move those agricultural products south to the New Orleans area for export. And what a lot of people forget is all the fertilizer for these crops all through the Heartland comes from Florida and Louisiana by barges. Coal for export comes down the Ohio River system. Most of the aggregate used in roads and homebuilding that comes from western Kentucky and southeast Missouri is shipped by barge. They all depend on those locks and dams and a dependable navigation channel,” he said.


Improvements are being made. He pointed out the Olmsted Locks and Dam on the lower Ohio River was dedicated in 2018. Funds are paying for work on the Chickamauga Lock near Chattanooga, Tenn., and on Kentucky Lock, which provides access to the Tennessee River basin.


James said another lock became a personal priority when he realized the role it played in the nation’s economy. It is through the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., that taconite, or iron ore, is shipped across the Great Lakes to be turned into steel for use in everything from automobiles and airplanes to refrigerators and railways.


Construction on the Soo Locks is now underway.


He has also found an ally in his efforts to improve the waterway infrastructure. James said he and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue have developed a partnership to spread the word through Congress and the various federal agencies about the necessity for maintaining the nation’s locks and dams.


James said he has worked to make changes to the way the Corps operates.


In a partnership memo to each of the Corps of Engineer districts, James directed the Corps to reach out to the local partners whether it is a levee board, drainage district or community and involve them in the entire decision-making process.


“Local sponsors usually have to cost share a Corps of Engineers’ project therefore they are a partner, they are not a stakeholder. If they have skin in the game they should be treated as a partner,” he said.


He said the local partners have told him they like the change. The district engineers have also found it helps them develop local relationships and learn who to turn to in an emergency such as a flood.


James’s office and the Environmental Protection Agency collaborated to re-establish the rule defining wetlands. He explained the old rule was difficult to understand prompting a farm ditch or a ranch pond to be considered a wetland. The new Navigable Water Protection Rule is currently out for public comment.


“All the way around it is for the national good,” James said about the NWPR. “We are not letting any wetlands be destroyed. We are just defining better what is a wetland.”


Responding to concerns that the Corps was costing too much and was too slow in responding to needs, James worked with the Corps leadership to move some of the decision-making process from Washington to the local districts. He said this cuts costs and speeds up programs.


He has also encouraged the Corps to consider local benefits of a project as well as how the project contributes to the national economy.


“Through experience I knew the Corps was not identifying and using the total benefits derived from a particular project. So I wrote a memo to that effect and sent it to the Corps. Now they are going to use all the benefits like the value of property, true value of agriculture products, recognizing safety of people. The protection of property and life is worth something, You have to put a figure on it,” he said.


James praised his staff at the Pentagon. He emphasized the 27 people who work directly for him are members of the U.S. Army Civil Works and not members of the Corps of Engineers.


“There are a lot of people who deal with us every day who don’t know the difference. But there is a difference,” he said. “The commanding general of the Corps of Engineers is a three-star general. I’m a four-star general equivalent. Now that isn’t pat for R.D. James, that is a pat for the position and that is what makes that position a supervising and directing position over all the of the Corps of Engineers.”


James called the pace of his job addictive and exhausting. But as he talked about the successes of the Corps of Engineers and his staff he smiled broadly. It is a job he believes is important to the country.


“You cannot successfully have inland navigation without flood control. The same projects responsible for flood control are the projects that keep rivers within their banks,” he said. “In turn, you cannot have flood control without navigation. The same navigation that promotes commerce also influences the transfer of water, therefore helping to provide flood control. There are people in Washington that still don’t get that.”