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Building dams and, we hope, public trust

Portland District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Published May 18, 2021
A man in a blue button up shirt and blue fleece vest sits at his desk in his office.

Kevin Brice stands in his office at the Portland District in downtown Portland, Ore. He has been the Deputy District Engineer for Programs and Project Management for the Portland District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers since May 2007 and will retire in June 2021.

A man in a blue shirt stands at his office window, which overlooks a river.

Kevin Brice stands in his office in downtown Portland, Ore. Brice has been the Deputy District Engineer for Programs and Project Management for the Portland District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers since May 2007 and will retire in June 2021.

A man in a blue button up shirt and blue fleece vest stands in his office.

Kevin Brice stands in his office at the Portland District in downtown Portland, Ore. He has been the Deputy District Engineer for Programs and Project Management for the Portland District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers since May 2007 and will retire in June 2021.

From my office building in downtown Portland, I have a beautiful view of a national treasure: the Willamette River.

I am reminded of how fortunate our nation is to have such a tremendous natural resource and how we have used it over the decades. I think of a resource that supports yet can threaten life and a resource that provides extraordinary benefits for our society.

I take pride in knowing my organization, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Portland District, has played an important role in the story of how our country taps into our water resources like the Willamette River. On April 17, the district celebrated 150 years of serving Oregon and southwestern Washington.    

From protecting our communities from flooding by holding back water during heavy rain events to generating hydroelectricity that powers hundreds of thousands of homes across our region—from maintaining river channels for navigation to providing world-class recreation opportunities—the Corps’ Portland District provides for our society. We plan, compare alternatives, design, and contract with private industry. We construct with concrete, sand, stone, and steel. We “push the buttons” to operate our projects. We maintain our projects with care.

The Corps of Engineers and Portland District have the tremendous honor to execute the will of the American people, as expressed by the presidential administration and Congress, and as sanctioned by the courts. It’s challenging work! In many ways, I believe that we are facilitating public debate. Often, we’re in the middle, balancing conflicting needs while supporting our national decision-making processes. 

Our flood risk management projects throughout the Willamette and Rogue river valleys are prime examples of how our role translates locally. Our studies of these basins in the ‘50s and ‘60s led to the authorization, funding, and construction of projects to protect communities from severe flooding while trying to maintain the basins’ fisheries and provide hydropower, water supply, and recreation. Today, while continuing to provide for the benefits, future environmental improvements are being programmed while some project aspects are being challenged in the courts. Our three branches of government do their respective parts in deciding our nation’s path for these water resources projects.  And the Portland District is playing our role: balancing the various and often competing needs at our projects. 

Corps of Engineers civil works projects are developed in many ways. For instance, Portland District’s portfolio includes legacy projects from President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” era, which provided relief from the Great Depression. Bonneville Dam put thousands to work and brought clean, renewable energy and massive economic benefits to the Northwest. The district operates navigation locks and hopper dredges so that river users can safely transit the Lower Columbia, a waterway that passes more than $25 billion worth of international commerce annually and supports thousands of trade-related jobs. The portfolio also includes recovery work after the eruption of Mount St. Helens. We re-opened navigation channels and helped reduce the flood risk caused by the volcano’s sediment—a challenge that continues today. More recently, as the COVID-19 pandemic began its insidious travels across our nation, we were called upon to convert an existing building in Lane County into a temporary care facility for COVID-sick patients. Today, we’re supporting FEMA’s efforts to provide housing for those displaced by last year’s devastating wildfires.

Yet with all the benefits provided for our communities, we recognize that over the years, our projects have come with costs. As we have come to understand the impacts, we’ve worked to make our projects better for the environment around us while striving to ensure any new work is environmentally friendly.

This approach looks like a greenhouse we have roughly 12 miles west of Eugene, where we restore native plants that help pollinators thrive. It looks like monitoring our work sites and planning projects to make improvements for endangered species. It looks like operations and structures that put survival percentage rates for fish in the high 90s as the fish make their way through our dams on the Columbia River.

We recognize that our civil works program is a part of the complicated national decision-making process. We know that we help the country decide how to best use our natural water resources. 

As the story of our nation and district has evolved, I have come to understand, so has the complexity of our work. More and more, as our work and our missions have grown in number and expanded in scope, the often-conflicting needs have become more defined and harder to balance. 

Since 1871, when Maj. Henry Robert established a Corps of Engineers office in downtown Portland, we have planned, studied, and applied the best available engineering and science to solve some of the toughest infrastructure challenges. Today, we have nearly 1,400 employees who are dedicated to this public service role.

We keep our eyes on our continuously evolving world and strive for open lines of communications with the public. Our reputation—as part of the world's largest public engineering, design, and construction management agency—lives and dies by our ability to deliver with timeliness and transparency.

Ultimately, we realize that our success is built on public trust. Public trust is essential.

 

The nation and the economy—people’s lives—depend on the job we do. To maintain the public trust, I believe, “how we do it” is as important as “what we do.” Are we transparent? Are we pro-active? Are we competent? Are we appropriately involving the public in our decision-making processes?

The answer should always be a yes. That’s the type of organization we strive to be. Are we perfect? No. However, we are an agency that tries to always do what’s right for the nation and our citizens.

The Portland District, following along with our nation, has undergone some vast transformations over time.

For instance, we’ve evolved our understanding and work to deliver on our responsibilities to our Native American tribes. Their culture, traditions and contributions are a rich and important part of our nation’s history. I don’t believe that our nation has always recognized this richness. Today, tribal relations are a critical component of the district’s overall mission—a reminder that we must continually look to improve how we carry out our work. 

We have tried to transform into an agency that engages with our communities. Although we have an important federal role and are a part of a national-level bureaucracy, we try to not employ a bureaucratic government approach. We reach out to receive input from local governments, interest groups, and the public on our proposals. Where we can, we meet local desires within our authorities, appropriations, and federal needs. We try to listen, understand, and incorporate what we hear. 

At the end of the day, we work for our nation. We always have. I am preparing to retire from my role as the district’s “senior civilian employee” at the end of May. In my 43-year public service career, I’ve seen the value of the Corps of Engineers to our military and to our nation. In my nearly 20 years with the Portland District, I’ve enjoyed the honor of being a part of a phenomenal organization and am proud of the difference we make for the people of the Pacific Northwest. I will miss being a part of the district’s continued contributions.

Our nation and the Portland District have come a long way in 150 years. I believe we’re ready for the work that lies ahead. The motto for the Corps of Engineers is “Essayons”. It means “Let us try” in French. I’m confident that we’ll continue to evolve with our nation and will try to do all we can to meet the needs of the nation in the future.

The beautiful view of the Willamette River that flows past my office window on the way to the Pacific Ocean reminds me of what we’ve accomplished and what we’re doing for our nation today. As I look at its beauty and think of these contributions, I feel confident knowing that we will continue to serve the nation for generations to come.