News Stories

Regulatory Project Manager Digs into Past to Update Critical List

Published July 18, 2018

When Regulatory Project Manager Ronnie Smith began to update the Wilmington District’s list of Navigable Waters of the U.S. last October, he had no idea of how overwhelming the task was going to be.  The last time the information had been updated was in 1965, and in a span of more than 50 years names of bodies of water have changed, and in some cases, no longer exist. 

   “I’ve been researching waters that are tidal in nature that are currently used or have been historically used for interstate commerce,” Smith said.  “Any work in navigable water bodies needs a permit, and every U.S. Army Corps of Engineers district is required to maintain a list of Navigable Waters of the United States.  We have a list that is from 1965 which is based off a list from 1940 which, in turn, appears to be based off of older lists and letters from the late 1800s.” 

   So began a tedious project of researching information from the past to match it to current information.  As easy as it is these days to simply click on a computer for instant information, Smith did not have that option.  He had to gather information from a series of historic books located in the Wilmington District library dated from the 1800s titled “Reports to the Chief of Engineers.”  In addition, he gathered information copied from House of Representatives and Senate documents dated from between the 1860s to the 1930s that are kept in the District office library.  There were few, if any, detailed Wilmington District reports from which to verify locations that he needed for the updated list.  His only solution was to cross-reference all available information.    

  “Looking at the list from the 1960s the letters read one thing, and the other information read another,” he explained.  “It’s very inconsistent and you don’t know which information to go by.  For example, the Wilmington District list doesn’t contain any landmarks for reference.  It only reads ‘navigable for 32 miles’ whereas a letter from House documents reads ‘navigable for 29 miles to the bridge in Lillington.’ There are a lot more specifics in the letters.”

   Smith said that the project is like working a puzzle.  The old Wilmington District list has creek names that don’t exist anymore.  He said they were named in the late 1800s, but then were renamed something completely different years later.

   “It’s really interesting and sort of like detective work,” Smith said.  “You’re trying to find names or other information that doesn’t exist anymore.  I’m going back to maps from the 1800s thinking, ‘Oh! That creek used to be called this, but now it’s called that.’  When I look for information in the House documents there’s a lot of good detail about the amount of commerce on these particular water bodies, the numbers of vessels that used the waterways, the width and depth. The whole point was to see if it was beneficial for commerce.”

     The papers and books began piling up in Smith’s cubicle.  He developed his own system of sorting the books and documents for cross referencing.  He found that there was more detailed information in House documents because they described landmarks.

   “One document read that the head of a navigation point was at ‘32 miles at the railroad bridge near a town.’  I then determined that the list was referencing the document because they both have the same mileage number.  Now I had an identifiable location.   I could then go back and look at old maps and use GIS to trace the water body and map the water to a point that was written in a letter, document or annual report.”           

  Smith said that the accuracy of the information from existing technology used in the past tended to be off by as much as 10 miles, but that some areas were right on the mark. 

   “I couldn’t imagine going out on a boat and stringing along waypoints to measure the length and width of a river.  For the tools that they had back then some were pretty accurate.  It’s impressive.”  

   Smith is nearing the end of his monumental task.  The end result will be an up-to-date map and accurate list of all Navigable Waters of the U.S. within the boundaries of the Wilmington District. 

   “The project had to be done,” Smith said.  “Now we’ll be current, and all we have to do is click a mouse to make our work easier and get accurate information.”