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.
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.
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.