District mission

Norfolk District: A century of excellence


No other federal agency than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has played such a sweeping role in the development and growth of the nation in peace and in war. For more than 200 years, the Corps has supported the nation’s river-based commerce, protected established population centers, provided disaster response and constructed military facilities to protect our shores.

Only in the last 30 years has science revealed some of the harm unregulated and poorly planned growth has caused to the nation’s natural resources. Each year, the Corps makes a significant contribution to that body of environmental knowledge through its large investment in time, money, research and environmental-restoration projects. Moreover, the nation has called on the Corps for aid in regulating sustainable development while wisely managing natural resources for future generations.

Corps projects are carried out at the request of local and state agencies and authorized by Congress, so prior to the global environmental awakening, the USACE mission was steered by flood control, water supply, navigation and national defense. The Corps has always been a lead partner in the plan to preserve and protect our nation. As a partner rich in engineering and scientific know-how, no other federal agency is better equipped as a significant partner in this nation’s efforts to restore and preserve the environment, while ensuring continued economic viability and national defense.

History of service

For more than 200 years, as the world’s largest public engineering organization, the Corps has had dual military construction and civil works missions. We also respond to natural and national disasters through our emergency management program, and are currently providing assistance all over the world to fight and win the Global War on Terrorism. The Corps of Engineers is a major Army command under the Office of the Chief of Engineers, headquartered in Washington, with a network of offices providing service around the globe. As one of those offices, Norfolk District has a proud record of service in the fields of engineering, water resources development and conservation.

The history of Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay's waterways and tributaries is the history of the continental United States. Here, the first permanent English settlement was established and shipbuilding as a profession had its American beginnings; here in 1794, the Corps of Engineers built the first earthwork coastal fortifications – Fort Norfolk and Fort Nelson. During our nation’s first 150 years, Chesapeake Bay waters carried cargoes of greater value and bulk than the rest of America combined. In these waters occurred the first naval engagement, amphibious expedition and battle that altered the entire course of naval warfare – the ironclads.

Although almost a constant presence in the commonwealth since the Corps of Engineers birth in 1775, it was not until over a century later, in 1879, that USACE established a permanent field office in Norfolk. The Norfolk U.S. Engineers Office’s first work was major improvements to Norfolk Harbor and the Nansemond and Elizabeth rivers. In 1908, Norfolk staff graduated to the status of a “district” when the Corps realigned and renamed its regional offices.

Fort Norfolk, a 19th-century historical landmark overlooking the Elizabeth River, became our home in 1923, when the district’s 27 employees moved in. Sixty years later, in the spring of 1983, the staff moved into its new headquarters building, the Waterfield Building, built next door to the old fort and overlooking the nation’s largest coal port, Hampton Roads Harbor.

About 430 civilians and a small staff of Army officers work together at the headquarters and numerous field offices throughout Virginia to fulfill the district’s dual military and civil works mission of engineering, construction and water resource management. The district’s pool of talent reflects the multicultural population of this major seaport. It offers such skilled professionals as biologists, oceanographers, environmental scientists, architects, contract specialists, water-resource planners, geologists, economists, surveyors, construction inspectors, communications specialists and engineers.

Civil Works

The Corps began its water resources program in 1824, when Congress for the first time appropriated money for improving river navigation. This act laid the foundation for the growth of perhaps the largest water resources development agency in the world. Since then, the Corps has been involved in navigation, flood reduction, hurricane response, environmental damage assessment and reducing beach erosion. Corps projects also involve hydroelectric power, water-supply studies and regulatory development in navigable waters, ecosystem restoration and recreational programs.

To address and protect the integrity of water resources from their source to endpoint, the Corps assigns boundaries according to river basins. In the case of Virginia, Norfolk District oversees the management of five river basins – the James, Rappahannock, York and Chowan, and the small Coastal Basins (the Chesapeake Bay area and Eastern Shore of Virginia), all of which cover about 23,000 square miles, or roughly 60 percent of the state's geography and 49 percent of its population. The remaining 40 percent of the commonwealth’s Civil Works program is managed by our sister districts in Baltimore; Nashville, Tennessee; Wilmington, North Carolina; and Huntington, West Virginia.

Storm-damage reduction

The district’s flood protection service to the state prevents or reduces flood damage by controlling flood flows in problem areas. Major structural flood control methods are dams, levees, floodwalls, and channels. Nonstructural flood-protection measures include flood proofing, relocation, and flood-plain management techniques. Since 1968, district civil works projects, such as the Richmond floodwall, have prevented hundreds of millions of dollars in damage throughout Virginia.

Hurricane and beach-erosion protection

Norfolk District also provides hurricane and storm-damage reduction. Just one storm, an unnamed hurricane that hit Virginia Beach in 1933, caused millions of dollars in damage. Before and since, countless hurricanes and other storms routinely caused tidal floods and catastrophic loss of life and property along the Atlantic Coast, and eroded the nation’s shorelines. One need only look back to Hurricane Isabel in 2003 to remember the devastation and develop a deep respect for the power of such natural disasters and ongoing need for coastal-protection measures.

Military program

The district’s military program dates back to the Revolutionary War when the Corps played a major role in building and repairing coastal defenses and erecting military fortifications, such as Fort Norfolk, to deter attack. Today, military construction for the Army, Army Reserve, Army National Guard, and the Air Force at eight installations forms the majority of the district’s design and construction management workload. The district is also the center of expertise for the design, construction and renovation of family housing throughout the northeastern United States. Also, the district is now the Army’s real estate agency for its Residential Communities Initiative, a multibillion-dollar family housing privatization program throughout the continental United States.

Our military construction mission, which encompasses roughly the entire state of Virginia, except for certain areas bordering Washington, includes engineering, architectural design and construction of such varied projects as hospitals and dental clinics; gyms; child-development centers; commissaries; munitions production systems; control towers for air and waterborne traffic control; Army piers; new Air Force squadron facilities; headquarters administration buildings; and indoor and outdoor training facilities. Military projects can require new construction or renovation of an existing facility. Historical, cultural and environmental values are also considered. Once completed, such projects allow our partners to keep pace with technology and improve the working conditions and lifestyle of service members, their families and government personnel who use the facility.


First among Virginia’s assets is its seacoast, most of which fronts the Chesapeake Bay, among the world’s greatest coastal havens. Tributaries of the bay and adjacent rivers offer countless harbors suitable to recreational boaters, commercial fisheries and waterborne commerce, not to mention unique maintenance dredging challenges. Thanks largely to the Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area in Portsmouth, Hampton Roads harbor ranks second in general cargo tonnage among ports on the East Coast.

Norfolk District has developed more than 70 navigation projects. Whenever possible, the district uses dredged material from these projects for beach nourishment, habitat restoration, oyster ground restoration, marsh creation or other beneficial uses. Our active drift and debris removal program ensures the safety and conduct of both commercial and recreational boaters in the harbor.

Supervisor of the harbor: As supervisor of the Norfolk Harbor and channels, Norfolk District has responsibility for maintaining one of America’s key harbors.

In a move essential to Virginia's economic vitality, Norfolk District has joined the Virginia Port Authority in a project to deepen the inbound shipping channel in Hampton Roads Harbor to 50 feet, a move that guarantees the continued competitiveness of the port, and ensures that the biggest ships in the world can call on the Port of Hampton Roads.

Within our civil works mission, we also operate and maintain the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, with the parallel Dismal Swamp and Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal routes. The portion of the waterway currently managed by the district includes three bridges, one swing span and two draw bridges, three navigation locks and 30 miles of canals. In the future we will maintain only two bridges, one swing span and one draw bridge.

Operations And maintenance

The Port of Hampton Roads has steadily grown to become the world’s largest coal port and the sixth-largest port in the United States. Norfolk District has also joined the Virginia Port Authority in a project to deepen the inbound shipping channel in Hampton Roads harbor to 50 feet, to provide for continued competitiveness of the port and ensure that the biggest ships in the world can call on the Port of Hampton Roads. The district operates and maintains the Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area, an economical and environmentally sustainable repository for material dredged within the Hampton Roads harbor. The district’s active drift and debris removal program ensures the safety and operation of vessels operating within the harbor. In addition to the port, the district has developed more than 70 navigation projects, which meet the waterborne transportation needs of commercial and recreational boaters. Whenever possible, the District uses dredged material for beach nourishment, habitat restoration, oyster ground restoration, marsh creation or other beneficial uses. The District operates and maintains the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, along with the parallel Dismal Swamp and Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal routes. The portion of the waterway managed by the District includes three highway drawbridges, three navigation locks and 38 miles of canals. Also, Norfolk District operates and maintains Gathright Dam, a flood-control project in Covington, Virginia.

Environmental restoration

The Corps of Engineers is a learning organization and what we have learned about the environment has dramatically altered our mission and how we design-build projects. We have embarked on a program to restore important environmental values that have been adversely affected by Corps projects. Where wetlands have been destroyed, fish migration impeded, and stream environments altered, we are examining ways to restore these valuable resources. One such Corps project, partnering with city, state, federal agencies and environmental representatives was the removal of a 130-foot section in the middle of Embrey Dam, located in Fredericksburg, Virginia, that allows the Rappahannock River to flow freely for the first time in more than 150 years. The Phase 1 detonation, conducted by the Army and Air Force Reserves, opened about ten 10-foot holes in the dam’s structure, allowing fish to pass through as part of their natural migration cycle. The complete removal of the 770-foot Embrey Dam, which has outlived its original purpose, will restore 106 miles of fish spawning and rearing habitat in the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers.

In another aggressive shift beyond our traditional environmental mission, Norfolk District now offers environmental planning and engineering services to both military installations and non-Department of Defense agencies. Those services include sampling and field and laboratory analyses, site characterization, asbestos removal, numerical and physical modeling, endangered species, and preparation of National Environmental Policy Act documents and permits.

At the next level, we provide program analyses and environmental plans, which offer a comprehensive evaluation of certain environmental areas. These may include recommendations for a client to comply with regulatory requirements or to improve their existing programs. Or we can develop, manage and coordinate a client’s entire civil or military environmental program. For example, we now coordinate environmental activities at Army Reserve commands nationwide and manage the Defense Environmental Restoration Act for both the Northeast Regional Organization at Fort Monroe and Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. These multimillion-dollar annual programs not only cover the headquarters facilities, but also their supporting installations throughout the United States.

Norfolk District can help our clients spell out the alphabet soup of environmental cleanup. For instance, our involvement in the nation’s hazardous, toxic and radioactive waste (HTRW) Superfund Program has included design reviews and contract administration of remedial action contracts and enforcement oversight to clean up the AVTEX Superfund site at Front Royal, Virginia.

Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, we provide geotechnical and engineering support and on-site representation and oversight for cleanup efforts. We can also conduct environmental compliance assessments and Occupational Safety and Health Administration compliance assessment inspections.

Norfolk District also serves as project manager and executes remedial actions for the Installation Restoration Program and Base Realignment and Closure environmental restoration at active duty military installations. Also, the district provides project management, preliminary assessments and remedial action for formerly used defense sites such as Former Nansemond Ordnance Depot in Suffolk, Virginia, and Plum Tree Island National Wildlife Refuge in Poquoson, Virginia.

Safeguarding cultural resources are yet another sometimes unfamiliar, but important aspect of environmental concern. Norfolk District offers an entire range of historic preservation services that include a partnership with other federal, state and local agencies, and an association with private industry specialists to document, protect, preserve and restore historic landmarks at installations or civil works project sites. What’s more, we can perform a full-range archaeological survey to investigate possible historic sites of concern to other federal agencies in the state.

The district prevents or reduces tidal flooding and beach erosion by building protective structures such as dunes, groins, dikes, seawalls, and breakwaters. But it also looks at non-structural alternatives. For instance, increasing the height, width and length of natural beaches also affords effective protection in some places, as evidenced by the Corps projects at Virginia Beach and Sandbridge that protected the coastal resort area from the fury of Hurricane Isabel, with an estimated $105 million in damage prevention.


Another of Norfolk District's most challenging and visible responsibilities continues to be our regulatory program, which covers the entire state of Virginia. Competition between development and the environment is intense. Issues range from regional water-supply questions, wetlands destruction and expressway expansions to mountaintop mining and coal-storage facilities. The district evaluates roughly 4,000 permit applications and performs about 3,000 pre-application site visits and jurisdictional determinations each year.

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