Permission granted: How the Corps governs federal waterways

By Tunis McElwain
Savannah District Regulatory Chief

A dock in a river requires permission from the federal government. Private-, public-, government-owned; all docks – and any other kind of work or construction in federal navigable waterways, must have a Department of Army permit granting permission for construction and existence – in perpetuity.

The federal government’s jurisdiction over these resources is delegated to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps’ Regulatory Program exists to administer and enforce the process in accordance with Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899. Under RHA Section 10, a permit is required for work or structures in, over or under navigable waters of the United States.

The responsibility to protect and regulate the nation’s aquatic resources is perhaps the Corps’ most misunderstood mission, in part because it is often confused with the Corps’ Civil Works mission.

When the Corps pursues construction in a federal waterway through its civil works arm, the federal government is the proponent for that project. Even in this case the Corps’ Regulatory program considers the federal government as an applicant. The Corps is neither for nor against projects that fall within its regulatory jurisdiction.

Why does the federal government regulate rivers?

The common good depends on the regulation of the nation’s water resources because water passes through private and public property. Construction that impacts water touching one property affects water users everywhere. Access to water is a common need whether it is for consumption or navigation – and waterway construction can impact both.

But it’s important to remember regulation exists not to prevent construction, but to ensure responsible construction. The federal government has an interest in economic development and recognizes that commerce depends on construction in waterways. Therefore, the purpose of the Corps Regulatory Program is not only to protect the nation’s aquatic resources, but to do it in a way that allows reasonable development through fair, flexible and balanced permit decisions.

Any person, firm or agency that maintains a structure, or plans to work in navigable waters of the United States, must obtain and maintain a permit from the Corps of Engineers.

Performing unauthorized work in waters of the United States or failure to comply with the terms of a permit can have serious consequences because it is a violation of federal law.

If you have questions about your permit, or if you’re not sure if you need a permit, we can help. The Savannah District has jurisdiction over all the navigable waters and wetlands in Georgia, the largest of which is the Savannah River.

The Charleston District has jurisdiction for all the waterways in South Carolina. This means if your property is adjacent to the Savannah River but on the South Carolina side, we can also get you in touch with a regulator in the Charleston District.

Bottom line: If you have a dock in the Savannah River, or any other navigable waterway, it’s important to be familiar with the terms of your permit, and to ensure it is up-to-date. And if you don’t yet have a permit for your structure, you must obtain one.

We balance the applicant’s needs with the public’s interest with every permit decision. But without that permit you could be adversely impacting the common good, and would be in violation of federal law.

About US Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District oversees a multi-million dollar military construction program at 11 Army and Air Force installations in Georgia and North Carolina. We also manage water resources across the Coastal Georgia region, including maintenance dredging of the Savannah and Brunswick harbors; operation of three hydroelectric dams and reservoirs along the upper Savannah River; and administration of an extensive stream and wetland permitting and mitigation program within the state of Georgia. Follow us on Twitter @SavannahCorps and on Facebook.com/SavannahCorps
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