The Lowcountry Engineers, Years of Challenge, Years of Change, 1978-2021

This history of the Charleston District spans one-third of a century since the conclusion of the first volume, which covered the district’s inception until 1978. It benefits from the availability of historical documents, interviews, and the substantial body of scholarly publications released during the last 30-plus years that provide fresh insight into the development of the present-day U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District.

Lowcountry Engineers: Military Missions and Economic Development in the Charleston District described the proud legacy. The great Charleston Harbor jetty project, completed in 1895, added 10 feet of depth to the channel leading from the ocean into the harbor, making it possible to bring a naval yard and base to Charleston. The Charleston District’s World War II construction of three Army Air Corps bases and the upgrading of seven municipal airports provided the foundation for the postwar rise of passenger and commercial air transportation in South Carolina. The district’s terminals, buildings, and other facilities at the port of Charleston, renovated during World War II, were later transferred to the State Ports Authority. Operating from the modern harbor maintained by the district, the dollar volume of Charleston cargoes would rise to 12th in the Nation by 1970. The erection of new army training camps and the expansion of Camp Jackson outside Columbia marked the beginning of the permanent presence of major army facilities and payrolls that dwarfed private investment in South Carolina. Other achievements include the turn-of-the-century Endicott system of coastal fortifications, elements of the World War II harbor defense, and the construction projects of the Intracoastal Waterway and the W. Kerr Scott Dam and Reservoir.

The history of the Charleston District from 1978 to 2012 is a story of continuity and change. The district’s chief business has continued to be the deepening and maintenance of the Charleston Harbor, with expenditures over $390.9 million during the period. Change includes the construction of a $207.8 million powerhouse and diversion canal to mitigate the adverse effects of the state’s Santee Cooper hydroelectric project constructed in 1942. The differences in the political, economic, social, and cultural environments within which the Corps of Engineers and the Charleston District operated through the mid-1970s and those of recent years are substantial. They begin with transition from a mainly construction-oriented organization to one that is equally concerned with operations and maintenance, an organization with extensive regulatory authority, multiple partnerships, and major interactions with local and state governments and with other federal agencies.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the challenge to do more with diminishing resources was exacerbated by the economic crisis of the Great Recession. In this environment, the Charleston District was not only challenged to conduct a study on the feasibility of deepening the Charleston Harbor beyond 45 feet to accommodate the larger vessels that soon would be plying the oceans, but to do so using an entirely new and accelerated study process.

This volume opens with a recounting of efforts by the Office of the Chief of Engineers and the South Atlantic Division to close the Charleston District. The history next describes the importance of the navigation mission, including the critical impact of the Cooper River Rediversion Project in saving Charleston Harbor. It describes the contributions to wildlife preservation and recreation that came from the construction of a fish lift and the research in the placement of dredged materials. It encompasses the increased awareness of the importance of the environmental cleanup at one of the Nation’s major nuclear facilities. The Corps’ Continuing Authorities Program, under which the district had undertaken projects to protect structures of historical significance and ecosystems, is highlighted. The district’s role in regulatory, emergency management, and shore protection in a coastal landscape is also described.

The Charleston District and the Corps of Engineers do not function in isolation. This history thus focuses on the pressures of implementing the changes driven by the adaptation of information technology and new theories of management. It notes budget difficulties stemming from the costs of maintaining the country’s aging infrastructure and continuing efforts to reduce the federal workforce. Measured in constant dollars, this is an age where civil works budgets declined steadily and remained relatively flat, at less than two-thirds of their peak.

The final chapters of this history describe the dramatic changes in the Charleston District in the last decade and a half. This begins with outreach to encourage cooperation across districts, the reacquisition of a military mission, and the Great Recession projects managed under the Emergency Stabilization and American Reinvestment and Recovery Acts. This recounting concludes with the extraordinarily complex and pioneering completion of the feasibility study for the Charleston Harbor Post 45 Deepening project. For continuity in telling the District’s story, certain events are followed for just a few years beyond 2012.

From a workload hovering in the range of $40 million annually at the turn of the 21st century, the Charleston District would grow to $60 million in 2008 and then expand more than five times to over $300 million by 2012. The sheer magnitude of change and the complexity of its ingredients would create a new and improved district, where, in 2005, $45.6 million in civil works accounted for 82 percent of district dollars, and in 2011, $104.5 million in civil works represented approximately 33 percent of district revenue.