In This Podcast Episode
Reports of climate-related disaster have made headlines across the country, from flooding in California to record-breaking heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest and all manner of extreme weather in between. These phenomena seem to be happening more frequently and more intensely as climate change continues to advance. In ways large and small, we’re all being forced to adapt to a new normal—and this episode’s guest on In the Public Interest is more familiar with these changes than most.
In this episode, co-host John Walsh welcomes Michael Connor, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works and former partner in WilmerHale’s Denver office. During his time at WilmerHale, Connor’s practice focused on natural resources, energy development and Native American law. Before joining WilmerHale, Connor held an array of high-level positions in the Obama Administration.
Connor talks through the Army Corps of Engineers’ Civil Works program’s efforts navigating and maintaining our waterways and engaging in flood risk reduction. He shares about the program’s important role on the front lines of the federal government’s response to climate change. Walsh and Connor also discuss how we can prepare the country’s infrastructure for our uncertain climate future and how the Army Corps of Engineers’ Civil Works program is working to build “climate resilience” into the next generation of American infrastructure.
Speakers: John Walsh, Felicia Ellsworth and Michael Connor
John Walsh: Welcome to “In The Public Interest,” a podcast from WilmerHale. I’m your co-host, John Walsh.
Felicia Ellsworth: And I’m your co-host, Felicia Ellsworth. John and I are partners at WilmerHale, an international law firm that works at the intersection of government, technology, and business.
Walsh: Turn on the news these days, and you’re likely to see stories of climate-related catastrophe across the country: flooding in California, a record-breaking heatwave in the pacific northwest, drought, hurricanes, and all manner of extreme weather in between. As climate change continues to advance, it seems that these events are becoming more frequent, and more intense. And we’re all being forced to adapt—in ways large and small—to a troubling new “normal.”
Ellsworth: Our guest today is more familiar than most with these changes—and the challenge of adapting to them. Mike Connor is Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, where he leads the Army Corps of Engineers’ Civil Works program. The Civil Works program is a sprawling enterprise with a multi-billion-dollar budget. It’s responsible for everything from maintaining ports and waterways to building flood control infrastructure and restoring aquatic ecosystems. Given this mandate, the Army Corps’ Civil Works program is at the frontlines of the federal government’s response to climate change, and it’s working hard to prepare the country’s infrastructure for our uncertain climate future.
Walsh: Mike Connor assumed his post in 2021. Before that, he was a partner in WilmerHale’s Denver office, where his practice focused on natural resources, renewable energy, environmental compliance and Native American law. And prior to his time at the Firm, he served in the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. All that to say, he has spent his career working at the nexus of law, policy, and the environment.
Ellsworth: We invited Mike on to discuss his work at the Army Corps, and to share his unique perspective on what it will take to confront the environmental challenges we face, and how we can build “climate resilience” into the next generation of American infrastructure. John will take it from here.
Walsh: Today I’m joined by Mike Connor, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works and a former partner at WilmerHale’s Denver office. Mike, it’s great to see you. Thanks for being here.
Mike Connor: Yeah, it’s great to be here with you, John.
Walsh: So, the Army Corps of Engineers, I think we’ve all heard that name, but I don’t know that people have a really good sense of what the Army Corps does. It’s such an important institution, has a gigantic budget, but would you give us just a quick overview of the Corps’ mission?
Connor: I’d be delighted to. It is even much larger than I had envisioned when I came into this position. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Army Civil Works program—it’s a massive enterprise. I think that’s the best way I can describe it. It has a broad range of responsibilities in its mission, everything from the original mission associated with the Army Corps—navigation and maintaining our waterways for purposes of commerce, engaging in flood risk reduction, and that’s along our rivers inland as well as dealing with flooding issues on our coasts and the impacts of coastal surges, those type of activities. In the last several decades, it’s taken on a broad aquatic ecosystem restoration mission, and those are the three primary areas that we describe as the Army Corps’ core responsibilities. But beyond that, recreation, more campgrounds than any other federal agency, including the National Park Service, largest hydropower producer in the country. And from a regulatory standpoint, it is the primary implementer of the Clean Water Act. And then, of course, very significantly this day and age is emergency and disaster response. The Army Corps is typically first in with FEMA in assessing damages, trying to restore power, undertaking a large number of responsibilities in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. And then, of course, in the rebuilding that takes place. So, we’re actively involved. So, the breadth of the mission is incredibly significant. And finally, I think, once again very relevant in this day and age, we’re constantly assessing and readjusting and rethinking what needs to be done with that infrastructure or any type of project that we’re undertaking because of the realities of a changing climate and changing needs in our communities.
Walsh: Wow, it’s hard to get your head around the scope of that mission and responsibility. Maybe give our listeners a sense, what’s the annual budget approximately of the Army Corps of Engineers?
Connor: There’s always the President’s budget that comes out on an annual basis, which I am duty bound to say, I absolutely support the President’s budget. That’s about 6.6/6.7 billion dollars the last couple of years. Typically, Congress writes in funds on top of that budget. And so, for instance, this year we have a budget of about $8.3 billion for 2023. But, to put that in context, in the last two years, if you combined the budgets provided by Congress the last two years and the bipartisan infrastructure law—17.1 billion—and then you can include disaster supplementals, overall for this agency that operates on a president’s budget of about 6.6 billion, we’ve received $41 billion in fiscal years ’22 and ’23, and so we’re built for a much smaller amount of execution, but we are being asked to execute at a much larger scale. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s certainly a challenge for the Civil Works program.
Walsh: Yeah, I can only imagine your people have to be running really hard to keep up with that amount of funding.
Connor: They would acknowledge that, yes.
Walsh: Now, we mentioned in the introduction a little bit about your background which is frankly, a long and storied career focusing on environmental law and policy, water law, Native American and Indian law, renewable energy and a breadth of things. When the opportunity came to head up the Army Corps of Engineers as Assistant Secretary of the Army, what got your attention? What was the thing that brought you in to take this job, which has got to be just extraordinary?
Connor: I think what most attracted me is one, you always like to think you can step in and make a difference. But I think what most attracted me was when President Biden—then-candidate Biden—was outlaying his vision and his priorities for the country. I immediately thought that the Army Corps of Engineers could play a very significant role in advancing the President’s priorities, particularly as it relates to addressing supply chain issues and our rivers of commerce, and the way we move commerce around this country and internationally. Obviously, climate resilience, which the President has been laser-focused on, the Army Corps has always been in the resilience business, but taking that to the next level and really adjusting to deal with the new realities of climate was highly important. And then, the President had a strong focus on environmental justice and equity in the investments that the federal government makes and I think some of that is long overdue in the Army Civil Works mission, so we could move the needle in that area, too.
Walsh: So, you mentioned the impacts of climate change. I think we think of climate change often in terms of big storms or forest fires, floods, things of that sort. From the point of view of an agency that has such an incredible footprint all across the country, where are you seeing the biggest impacts from climate change on the actual work of the Army Corps of Engineers?
Connor: I think climate change is having a major impact in all of those mission areas for the Corps of Engineers that I referenced. The biggest reality of climate change, as we see it right now, is what we call “weather whiplash.” It’s these extreme events. For instance, in 2022, just in the continental US, we had six 1-in-1,000-year precipitation events. These have a .1% chance of happening on any base in any time frame, and we had six of them last year, which was unprecedented. Then you have extreme aridification that’s happening in the West, with respect to droughts that we haven’t seen in 1,200 years. And then, you have the record storm surges that happened, for instance, on the coast of Florida with respect to Hurricane Ian. Those extreme events, in all of those situations, the Army Corps of Engineers has an immediate role in dealing with those extreme events and an ongoing responsibility to try and prepare for those events in the future.
Walsh: I’d like to talk about some of the specifics of some of the crises or climate change-related issues. We mentioned floods, of course, and I think a lot of folks think about the Corps of Engineers responding to floods, like what happened in a storm surge like in Katrina or in Ian, the various hurricanes. But I don’t think we necessarily think so much about the impacts of drought. For example, I know you’ve talked at some length publicly about the impact of a drought on, of all places, the Mississippi River just this past year, and the complexities of the response to that. Maybe you could describe that, because I don’t know that most people think about a river—it’s famous for flooding—like the Mississippi being subject to the kind of drought that’s happened recently.
Connor: Yeah, absolutely. You think of the Mississippi River, you’re usually thinking of sandbags when you think extreme events. It was anything but that this year. About September of 2022, we had the realities of drought conditions moving from the West, where they had been for quite a while, into the Midwest and that was greatly affecting the Mississippi River Basin, which drains like 35 to 40% of the country. Those low water conditions gradually started impacting this river of commerce, where almost a trillion dollars a year of goods moved through the Mississippi River and something like 700 million short tons. So, when you have low water conditions and the channel starts to fall and restrict, there are significant issues associated with moving that cargo. So, this started to impact the movement of goods back in September, really heightened in October and November to the point where it was on the White House’s radar screen. I was briefing the National Economic Council on an ongoing basis. We tried to do what we could with our facilities. We have a number of locks and dams, they store some water. We tried to conserve some water, make releases in the Mississippi. We did some of that but the bottom line is we had to dredge like crazy to maintain the depth of the channel and keep hopefully a channel widen it for barges going upriver and downriver to keep moving. Capacity was greatly reduced. That had significant impacts to industry, particularly ag producers because that’s around harvest time. And oh, by the way, one other aspect of this, while all this was going on, because you have low water flows coming down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico, you had saltwater intrusion from the gulf into the lower parts of the Mississippi and we had to construct a salt water barrier to protect the drinking water intakes of some communities and the coast of Louisiana, because they were impacted by salt water trying to move up the system that would have ended up in their drinking water system. So, it was a complex situation and I’m talking about it in past tense, thankfully, because we have seen a significant rebound in moisture in the Mississippi River Valley. We’re getting out of the extreme low flow stages and it looks, with the current forecast, that we might be out of the crisis, at least to this point in time.
Walsh: What’s remarkable about that story is that it had to be something that wasn’t on the radar screen until it actually happened. Or was it? I mean, one of the things that I think we always think about in climate changes is are there ways of predicting the sorts of extreme events like you’re describing, Mike, in advance so that you can be preparing for it? Or was this such a Black Swan Event, so to speak, that it caught the whole Mississippi River navigation community a little by surprise?
Connor: That’s a great question and I don’t think it caught everybody by surprise like an immediate adjustment. You can probably see these things out, maybe up to a month. You can see it developing with our forecasting capability, but you never know if it’s going to be a long term event or it’s a short term event which is much more manageable. I will just give you a quick anecdote about this. As far as my own coming to realize this situation was going to take on crisis form, I was getting briefed by the Deputy Commanding General for the Corps, Major General Butch Graham, and we were talking about Hurricane Ian, and everything we were having to do to immediately respond to the impacts of Hurricane Ian on Florida. And we had something like 800 personnel down in Florida restoring power, looking at temporary housing structures, etc., and then at the end, General Graham mentioned oh, by the way, we’ve got this situation in the Mississippi River now that’s really coming into crisis mode, and we’re moving in a lot of our dredges and attention to this area. And I just threw up my hands and said, General Graham, got too much water, too little water and everything in between. That’s the story of the Army Corps of Engineers; and that’s the reality. So, we didn’t see it a long way coming off. I don’t think the navigation industry saw it a long way coming off. We had a sense, we started to adjust, and then it was upon us, quite frankly, fairly quickly.
Walsh: So, when something like this happens that such a severe event, you’re sort of on notice now, okay, this is the sort of thing that climate change may bring us even in the Mississippi. Does that kick into motion future planning for events of this kind, possibly reoccurring?
Connor: Absolutely, this is the challenge of the day. What are we learning from all these situations even when we’re in the midst of it? How do we need to adjust in our ability to forecast these events in our predictive modeling with respect to managing water resources? In addition to that, we need to not just predict, but how can we start designing or redesigning existing infrastructure to deal with these new extremes? I can tell you on the Missouri River because of events in 2019, we are now adding capacity to our flood control system and our levee systems and rebuilding the part of that system. So, it’s an ongoing situation where we are learning, we’re trying to put in place new actions, new infrastructure and, of course, we’re trying to design new infrastructure, but also what I will say from a budget standpoint is having the ability to respond and having some flexibility in your budget is incredibly important. We can’t just pretend that we can formulate a budget two years in advance, put it in specific categories, and not be able to move those resources cause we’re going to need them and, in this case, because of the bipartisan infrastructure law, because of actions Congress has taken, we had some flexibility to move money to cover all of this very significant dredging activity. We spent probably $40 to $50 million above what had previously been budgeted for just because of the round the clock activity that we were doing to keep the channels open on the Mississippi River. So, it’s everything from budget to planning to ongoing operations, trying to adjust to deal with the new realities.
Walsh: So, that flexibility seems related to the concept of climate resilience, which you mentioned earlier in describing the President’s priorities. When you talk about climate resilience, give us a sense of what you mean by that. And is there a project that you could point to that exemplifies that kind of effort?
Connor: Sure. Perfect example: climate affects the environment and the Army Corps of Engineers has been the lead in a program for the last couple of decades to restore America’s Everglades. Because of the historic replumbing we did back in the mid 20th century, to put it bluntly, we screwed up the Everglades and the natural sheet of water that had always flowed through the Everglades that kept that wonderful ecosystem and environment in place. So, now there’s been a long term effort to restore the Everglades, and it involves a lot of replumbing and restoring those flows. But in the immediacy of that and recognizing the ongoing changes in the landscape, we are not just restoring the Everglades. We are replumbing and managing water different in Florida with our partners in South Florida Water Management District, to basically account for those extreme events to account for rising sea level and salt water intrusion into the coasts of Florida. We are encompassing projects to address that even as we restore flow across the Everglades. So, it’s become not just Everglades restoration, it’s become resilience building in South Florida. So, that’s one example. Probably the most significant example is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and what we did around New Orleans, with the hurricane storm damage risk reduction system. And, it’s basically a fortification of surge barriers and pumping stations and outflows that got rebuilt in and around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to completely redo the process we’re doing with those extreme hurricane events that have been plaguing Louisiana for quite some time. And so, that was a $15 billion project. It includes the largest surge barrier in the world that was built the quickest, I think it’s 1.8 miles. It includes the largest pumping station in the world to be able to pump water out of that inner area that’s within the storm surge system that we have built. And we just turned that over as a completed project to the State of Louisiana and New Orleans and the districts that will be managing it. So, that’s a completed project. Lastly, I would just mention atmospheric rivers — we’re in the midst of a surge of atmospheric rivers in California. Our flood protection systems are holding, but it does bring to the surface the question that a lot of us have been wrestling with for a while, which is in the extreme droughts that plague California, when you have these atmospheric rivers, how do we redesign or rethink our flood management systems so that we can capture some of that water? We can recharge aquifers, we can use it to enhance some environmental needs, and can we secure some of that water for specific water supply purposes in the State of California?
Walsh: Well, when you talk about the project in the aftermath of Katrina, of course, it affected a huge section of Louisiana and the City of New Orleans. But there was, of course, the flooding of the 9th Ward and more in the socioeconomically-challenged parts of New Orleans got hit pretty hard with the flooding then. You mentioned earlier the commitment of the Army Corps to addressing environmental justice and protecting communities even if they’re more on the marginalized side. Could you talk a little bit about that? How does that look on the ground for the Army Corps of Engineers in how you’re doing your work to ensure its efforts are truly just on a broad scale?
Connor: Yeah, thanks for that opportunity because, quite frankly, this is the issue that I almost feel like we’re behind on, and we need to create the institutions that allow the Army Corps of Engineers to work with economically-disenfranchised marginalized communities. The fundamental reason I say that, and the fundamental issue has always been the Army Corps has been directed to formulate its projects, whether they’re flood risk reduction, whether they’re navigation, whether they’re restoration projects to enhance national economic development overall, which means the Army Corps of Engineers has been charged with maximizing benefit cost ratios in any projects that it develops. And when you do that, particularly with respect to flood control projects and you’re looking to protect property and economic activity, you do it at the highest value areas, not the lowest value areas. And that has excluded economically-challenged and minority communities, to be blunt. My predecessor directed the Corps to think more broadly, look at all the benefits when you design projects that could be brought. This is before you get to the economic analysis. Just look at all the benefits you can bring in doing a project. We call it comprehensive benefits. Now we need to take that next step, not only continue to do that, but allow the Corps to look at social environmental benefits in conjunction with economic benefits and design on a larger scale. And then, we also need to specifically work with some of these economically challenged, diverse communities who never have had the benefit of working with the Corps before. So, we need to do a lot of outreach; we need to bring our programs to them. Congress has given us a lot of tools where we can waive cost shares for these type of communities. But, quite frankly, I think we’re in the infancy of this approach now. We’re trying to make good investments now that enhance those communities and I’ve got plenty of examples of those, but we’ve got to change the decision-making process for the Corps.
Walsh: How has that played out in real projects? Do you have any examples there where the approach of the Corps has changed as a result of this focus on a broader set of benefits?
Connor: I can give you a couple of examples. Once a project that’s been authorized, designed and is now being funded, it’s in Selma, Alabama. We had a flood control project to deal with some historical flooding issues in Selma, particularly, it’s downtown area, some historical areas. As we went through that project, it was brought to my attention that neighborhoods have been excluded. And so, I think the focus on environmental justice and equity led to a pretty frank discussion with the Corps. Even as we were moving forward with a much needed project, that we had left neighborhoods and parts of the original intended protected area out of the project.
Connor: So, it was a good discussion to understand why that happened and it is leading to some of the new policies that we’re trying to implement. But on the other hand, I would say, we have been long working with two tribes in New Mexico on an environmental restoration project, flood management project. This is, okay, Wingate Pueblo and Santa Clara Pueblo. And, I just recently signed a design agreement with those two pueblos. So, this has been a project long in development, but through the bipartisan infrastructure law, through the Corps, the Albuquerque districts, and very intense work with these two pueblos, we worked with the Pueblos on how we would incorporate the traditional knowledge, their expertise to do a major, the first major civil works project to restore a floodplain along the Rio Grande on the land of these two pueblos that will restore need of habitats that are sacred to them, these type of plants and the habitats they create for certain animals that are part of that cultural existence, quite frankly, and we’re going to design that project. We’ve now moved forward with about $100 million of funding. This is the first major civil works project primarily to benefit these two historically disenfranchised communities, and now they’re partners in that process.
Walsh: That’s got to be particularly gratifying to you. You’re from New Mexico originally. It’s got to be exciting to see the Army Corps addressing this issue in such a precedent breaking way.
Connor: It might have a little bit to do with my focus on this particular project, being a tribal member of Taos Pueblo, as well as being a New Mexican.
Walsh: There you go. As we’re coming to the end of our conversation, maybe it makes sense to zoom out a little bit. So, here’s my biggest question to you. From where you’re sitting now and having been in place now for over a year, what keeps you up at night? What is your greatest concern as you think about the work of the Army Corps of Engineers, our changing climate and the work ahead?
Connor: I think it’s the pace of change. No matter how we’re trying to rethink our processes and our systems and our infrastructure, and I have experience in this in my prior capacities running the Bureau of Reclamation at the Department of Interior and the Colorado River basin—just a series of actions to try and get ahead of the impacts of extreme drought aridification, and I could name you 5-6 agreements of restructuring in that situation where we’ve delayed the impacts that you’re seeing today, but it doesn’t keep up with the pace of change. And I think I see that in the same way at the Army Corps of Engineers. What’s happening with these extreme weather events, whether it’s hurricanes, whether it’s precipitation, it’s overwhelming our systems and the bottom line is that we’ve got 20th century infrastructure in a 21st century climate. And how quickly we make that transition and cover that gap and understanding where it’s headed to not just cover that gap, because that gap keeps expanding, whether it’s in our flight control systems, whether it’s in our ability to rely on navigation systems, because we expect certain flows. There’s a principle called stationarity where you plan in the future based on what’s happened in the past. And even as early back in 2007, and I remember reading a report, that principle was gone. Things were already changing very quickly, and so that’s what keeps me up most at night, what’s happening on the landscape and what communities need to address that. And I see because of that breadth of mission that the Army Corps of Engineers has a broad set of responsibilities to deal with those issues and we’re getting resources, we’re getting investment, we’re getting visibility on these issues. Today, that’s the good news. How do we work with states, other federal agencies, local communities, tribal governments to maintain pace? That’s going to be the serious challenge that we’re wrestling with right now.
Walsh: Yeah, it’s extraordinary just as a layperson, seeing how quickly things happen that we’ve never seen before in the climate. Let’s flip that question around though. What lets you sleep at night? What’s making you think that this situation is manageable, and the Army Corps can step up to the plate and continue to do such an incredible job?
Connor: I think one of the good news stories, not to get political, is acceptance. So, seems to be we’re past the debate part of climate change, not completely past, I’m not naïve. But there seems to be an acceptance that it’s occurring, and it’s having an impact in the form of these extreme events, and we need to come together and do the level of research, make the scientific investments, and so that then we can make the on the ground investments needed to protect people, protect commerce and protect the environment. And so, that at least allows us more and more to transition, to focus on how we’re going to do it, not whether we should be doing it. So, that’s comfort level. And then, I think, we all have a growing understanding of the need for governmental entities, whether it be federal agencies working together or with state and with local entities or tribal entities, we need to get out our stove pipes. We’re not responsible. We, the Army Corps of Engineers and Civil Works program, we’re not responsible for improved forecasting. We certainly use it. We will certainly find it. We certainly work with it. But, you know, that’s NOAH National Weather Service and monitoring stream flows, and getting better data, and increasing the ability of our predictive models to see the extremes. USGS has a big role of that; in any of the infrastructure we implement, we need state and local partners to work with us on acquiring land easement, the willingness to fund a portion of these projects. There’s a recognition that we all need to work together in that it’s a big challenge too, to get out of your stove pipes and say I’ve got to go work with everybody else, as well as manage this one entity that I’m responsible for.
Walsh: One of the things that comes across to me just hearing you talk about all of the different projects and all the different work the Army Corps does is really just a profound appreciation for the amount of expertise, skill and, what has to be, incredible dedication of the people at the Army Corps of Engineers—not only taking on these gigantic complex projects, but responding to emergencies in real time over and over again. That’s got to be something, as head of the Corps, that just jumps out to you every day. How many employees, how many different people are at the Army Corps? And I don’t know if you can comment on just the sheer level of public service that these folks are doing.
Connor: No, I’d love to comment on that. I think it’s discouraging when you hear people talk negatively about public service or public servants. When those of us who have worked in agencies in different capacities, and certainly you see some frustrations and bureaucratic nature. But overall, you see extreme commitment and the challenge of it is to respond to the new needs that exist out in communities, and you’re trying to serve those needs. In the Army Corps of Engineers, which has the civil works mission as well as a military mission, so it’s got 25,000 to 35,000 employees collectively working on those different missions, I get to see that same commitment, that same recognition of the value of public service and the enjoyment people have that they bring to work every day. And then I get to see it in the context of an organization that is part of the military. Then there’s just this very focused effort towards execution and carrying out the mission and doing whatever is necessary, particularly when we have disasters or emergencies. We bring in those same people who are working on day-to-day public works projects, and we put them in a disaster response setting and they go, and they go willingly, and they do it sometimes, while their own communities, take New Orleans: people responding to Hurricane Katrina and those situations when they’re worried about their own family and their own personal housing situation. You see that constantly. You just shake your head and say these people are wonderful, they’re committed, they’re everything that we need. And to the extent that you give me an opportunity to make that point and you make it in different forms that I’ve heard, it’s really important that we keep highlighting the commitment of public servants.
Walsh: Yeah, it’s so easy for us because it generally works so extraordinarily well to take for granted the amount of effort that goes into this, which is truly extraordinary as you’ve been describing it. Well, thank you so much, Mike, for taking the time to talk to us and best wishes to you and everyone at the Army Corps on this incredible work. Thanks so much, Mike. And look forward to seeing you soon.
Connor: Sounds good. Appreciate it.
Walsh: Mike, thank you so much for joining us.
Ellsworth: And thank you, everyone listening, for tuning in to this episode of “In the Public Interest.” We hope you’ll join us for our next episode. If you enjoyed this podcast, please take a minute to share with a friend, and subscribe, rate and review us wherever you listen to your podcasts. See you next time on “In the Public Interest.”