Peaks and valleys: Northwestern Division leverages regional project sharing to complete the mission

Published Oct. 17, 2023
The Osage River can be seen with rocks in the foreground and trees and a blue sky in the background.

Erosion on the banks of the Osage River can be seen in Tuscumbia, Missouri. The St. Louis District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is providing technical support for the Kansas City District’s Osage River General Investigation Study.

The Osage River can be seen with rocks in the foreground and trees and a blue sky in the background.

Erosion on the banks of the Osage River can be seen in Tuscumbia, Missouri. The St. Louis District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is providing technical support for the Kansas City District’s Osage River General Investigation Study.

Comprised of nearly 37,000 employees, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is tasked with engineering solutions for the nation’s toughest challenges. Across the enterprise, many divisions and districts have seen a surge in workload over the last few years. While USACE has seen similar surges in the past, this increase in workload is larger than many can remember in recent history.

The source of the current surge in workload is twofold. According to Col. Travis Rayfield, Kansas City District commander and district engineer, there has been an increase in funding from Congress through various infrastructure bills, which has resulted in more work across the enterprise. Additionally, The Economy Act allows federal agencies to enter into agreements to obtain supplies or services from another agency. This increase in funding for projects, coupled with an increase in resource sharing among agencies, has resulted in the surge in workload the enterprise is experiencing across the nation.

“We have one of the highest workloads that we’ve had in a very long time across the region and across the enterprise,” said Beth Coffey, director of programs for the Northwestern Division.

For the Northwestern Division, the increased workload has presented an opportunity to implement regional project sharing, sometimes called regionalization. Working with other districts in the division, or even outside of the division, is not new. USACE districts have been working together on projects across district boundaries for years.

For example, the Kansas City District Military Program has executed numerous designs and contract awards for the Japan District and the Far East District in previous years. Additionally, the district’s Planning Branch completed a General Investigations Study for the South Atlantic Division in 2021. But the Kansas City district has also received support from other USACE districts throughout the years. Currently, the Saint Louis District is providing all the technical support for the Kansas City District’s Osage River General Investigation Study. 

“Regionalization is working outside your geographic command boundaries,” said Rayfield. “[USACE] has had a long-standing history of regionalizing where it makes sense or creating centers of excellence.”

The purpose of regional project sharing is exactly what its name suggests: distribute the work on projects among the districts in the region to effectively execute the mission. Regional project sharing allows districts to use capacity from another district to help them complete the project.

“[Regional project sharing] is being able to reach out to other districts and say, ‘how can you help me do this work because I just don’t have the staffing or capabilities,’” said Coffey.

Although districts in the Northwestern Division have been working together on projects for some time, assigning a project, in its totality, within one district’s boundaries to another district, is somewhat new for the division, and the Kansas City District is leading the way.

“We are trying to leverage the best skillsets in USACE toward problems. It’s a good thing that the Kansas City District is being asked to lead some of these efforts,” said Rayfield. “That’s a testament to the trust and confidence we’ve built over time.”

Easing the burden

The Northwestern Division is made up of five districts: Portland, Seattle, Walla Walla, Omaha and Kansas City, and is one of the largest, geographically, in the nation. The civil works and military construction portfolios of the division have grown significantly in recent years. As these missions grow, the division has started to rely on regional project sharing to complete them.

“There’s times where certain portions of the enterprise get too much work because of mission in that area and there’s times where they have too little work,” said Bryan Smith, Kansas City District deputy district engineer for project management. “Working together as one enterprise, in this case as a region, helps to balance … the workload and resource peaks and valleys.”

The Kansas City District has been assigned lead on two projects in the Northwestern Division that would not normally have been assigned to the district. The projects are a Veterans Administration hospital in Walla Walla, Washington and the Over the Horizon Radar project in eastern Oregon.

“At least on the military programs side, I would say it’s one of the first times in recent memory that we’ve actually realigned a project in one district’s area of responsibility to be executed by a different district,” said Tim Kurgan, military programs branch chief at the Kansas City District.

Based on district boundaries, both projects would have typically been assigned to the Seattle District, but because of their current workload focus on higher priorities, Northwestern Division leadership made the decision to assign the projects to the Kansas City District. By assigning the projects to another district, division leadership hopes to ease the burden on the Seattle District, a charge that, according to Kurgan, the Kansas City District is happy to take on.

“The Seattle District has an enormous and important workload,” said Kurgan. “Hopefully we are pulling a little bit off their plate … and maybe giving them a little bit of relief.”

Benefits now and in the future

The benefits of sharing work across the division are evident in both the short term and long term. Short term, regional project sharing eases the workload for the districts that are overburdened. It also gives the districts a chance to work on new projects in areas of the country that they might not normally get to work on, which helps to further develop skills and expertise. For Kansas City District leadership, knowing that district employees will get to work on projects in the northwestern part of the country is exciting.

“I think there is an element of excitement, keeping [work] fresh and not becoming mundane,” said Smith. “It gives people something different to work on.”

Long term, regional project sharing promotes partnership and strengthens relationships among the districts in the Northwestern Division. Even more important, regional project sharing allows USACE to complete projects of national importance.

“When you get an opportunity with something this technically complex and unique it’s always a great opportunity,” said Kurgan. “[Regional project sharing] makes for stronger teams. It makes us stronger in the future for whatever next mission comes down. They are important projects to the nation.”

At the division level, leadership hopes leveraging regional project sharing will not only help recruit new employees but also help retain experienced employees. Developing regional teams with experience across the division will ultimately help to strengthen the division’s capabilities, now and into the future.

“It’s great to say, ‘ok, how am I going to get my work done in the next couple of years,’ but I want to be able to have expertise for work that’s five to ten years in the future,” said Coffey. “It’s a team sport.”

At the Kansas City District, being assigned lead on two projects in other districts is not only an exciting opportunity for those that get to work on the projects, but a reflection of the reputation the district has fostered across the division and across the enterprise.

“It’s a testament to some of the skills and some of the confidence that we have built over time, so it’s exciting and that’s about having great people,” said Rayfield. “I need exciting work for our great people and so for me, this is exciting stuff.”