SAN PEDRO, California – During a recent trip to California, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told stakeholders he envisions the Corps as “champions for change.”
Semonite spoke at the California Marine Affairs and Navigation Conference Jan. 18 in San Pedro, before boarding a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter to tour the devastation of the recent mudslides in Santa Barbara County.
He told the audience the most important commitment the Corps can give to its stakeholders is to continue to be innovative and think outside the box.
“I want our team to be a champion for change,” he said. “I love that word. I want you to champion change. Strive to find ways to look into an uncertain future, be poised or recognize those opportunities and be innovative.”
As the chief of engineers for the nation, Semonite discussed the national perspective of the Corps’ civil works program and provided insight into the Trump administration, relative to water resources infrastructure.
With a new administration, Semonite said he has seen a push for deregulation. Some of the ways the Corps is working with the White House is by creating more streamlined and efficient operations.
The Corps’ mandate is reasonable development, while at the same time protecting the environment, he said, and it works closely with the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency on many of its projects. Despite cuts to some of those agencies, Semonite said the Corps continues to see great support.
“We continue to make sure that we, as a federal family, are able to work side by side,” he added.
The general also talked about the nation’s aging infrastructure, the push to rebuild it and the potential for more public-private partnerships.
The more local investors are able to contribute to a project, he said, the better the cost-to-benefit ratio, which increases the chances of the project getting funded.
He encouraged the audience to engage with the Corps and other stakeholders often and not just when an issue arises, and said the Corps will strive to identify and consider their perspectives.
“The Corps recognizes diverse thoughts and opinions contribute to better decisions and outcomes,” he said. “Don’t think that we, the Corps of Engineers, have the approved solution. We need your input and your advice.”
He also outlined several of the Corps’ commitments to its stakeholders and the community, and promised transparency.
“We’re going to tell you what we’re doing,” Semonite said. “If we make a mistake, we’re going to tell you up front what’s going on. We’re going to lay out the good facts; we’re going to lay out the bad facts. We’re going to find compromise. We aren’t going in with the approved solution. We’re listening to both sides of an argument and trying to find out what is the right way to do it.
“But that compromise means we’re not risking our integrity, we are not going to risk our engineering science, and we’re not going to risk violating the law. We’re going to find a compromise, but we’re going to do it within some bounds that I want our organization to stand for.”
In addition to its civil works program, the Corps supports other Department of Defense branches, like the Navy and the Air Force; the warfighting commander in 110 different countries; Missile Defense Agency; Customs and Border Protection; the Veterans Administration; and is the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s engineer.
Since August, he said, the Corps has received more than 105 FEMA missions, valued at more than $1.3 billion, and has responded to five hurricanes, deploying more than 1,750 personnel to Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Locally, the Corps' South Pacific Division is providing debris removal from the October Northern California wildfires; and the Corps’ Los Angeles District is supporting debris removal from 11 basins following the January mudslides in Santa Barbara County.
“Similar to how we know there is not a one-size-fits-all approach with disaster response, since what works in Florida and Texas might not be possible for the U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico, there may not be a one-size-fits-all approach with the infrastructure challenges we have in California,” he said. “So how then do we get the results we need for the people we serve? That’s an important discussion for us to have.”
The Corps is postured to deliver engineering solutions to the nation’s toughest challenges, Semonite said, but the organization values local support.
“It is absolutely undeniable how vital California is to the security and prosperity of this nation,” he said. “It’s our job to continue to find your projects, find your concerns and try to champion those, and you can be the best advocate.”