Seminar: Martin Doyle- Federalism in Federal Water Agencies: How Districts of the Corps of Engineers Vary in Reservoir Operations

Please join us at our Water in the West seminar. Martin Doyle, Director of the Water Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, will be presenting, "Federalism in Federal Water Agencies: How Districts of the Corps of Engineers Vary in Reservoir Operations".


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) manages 537 reservoirs for flood control, navigation, hydro power, water supply, and recreation along with other purposes. These reservoirs are operated across the diverse regional differences in climate, population, and geography that has led the agency to operate as a hierarchical, federalist system. In addition to headquarters, which sets national policies and practices, the Corps is operated through 7 regional Divisions responsible for coordinating projects among 36 Districts. Individual projects, including reservoirs, are operated and managed at the District level.

This federalist approach enables each Corps District to respond to changing conditions semi-autonomously particular to their region.  However, it may also lead to divergence in how the Corps, as a singular agency, responds to changes.

We developed a national database of daily reservoir operations (storage capacity and flow releases) and compared those operations to the particular guidance or policies for each reservoir (water control plan; guide curve).  Our results show that Corps Districts operate reservoirs in different ways, with some operating reservoirs very consistently with reservoir-specific guidelines, and others diverging significantly from such guidelines.  We also find that federal agencies can, and have, devolved significant operational authority of water resources to the local level, and that authorizing language is often sufficiently vague so as to allow great discretion in actual operations.  While we focused on the Corps, other federal agencies operate with similar structures, such as the Bureau of Reclamation’s operation through regions and area offices. 

Federal agencies are not monolithic bureaucracies staffed by rule and policy-deploying automatons.  Rather, they are complex organizations responding to highly diverse environmental, demographic, and political conditions.  Such agencies are best considered through a federalist lens than through the more traditional central-government lens.