Category Archives: SWD Commander

Brig. Gen. David Hill

Life Jackets Worn, Nobody Mourns: words to live by

By Brig. Gen. David C. Hill

Life Jackets Worn

Dallas–This year, your U.S. Army Corps of Engineers parks and lakes will welcome numerous visitors as we celebrate our nation’s independence over an extended holiday weekend. With the Fourth of July falling on a Monday this year, some will be fortunate enough to make the holiday weekend even longer by taking time off this Friday. What could be better than that?

As the proud stewards of 2.3 million acres of public land and water, the dedicated workforce of the Southwestern Division of the Army Corps of Engineers will be excited and ready to welcome citizens at our parks and lakes across much of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri this weekend and throughout the summer.

Brig. Gen. David C. Hill
Brig. Gen. David C. Hill

In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers is the nation’s largest provider of water-based outdoor recreation. Annually, the Southwestern Division tracks $2.5 billion in visitor spending and 19,000 jobs created within 30 miles of our lakes and over $56 million dollars in recreation fees returned to the U.S. Treasury.

Now, these are some impressive statistics!

But there’s a darker side to the statistics too.

Through June of this year, there have been 33 public fatalities at Southwestern Division recreation facilities–double what we experienced in the same timeframe last year and the highest we have experienced this early in a summer since 2011.

As to who makes up these fatalities, over the past ten years, 88 percent of all Army Corps of Engineers water-related public recreation fatalities were men, and 63 percent were between the ages of 20 and 60. Also, 84 percent were not wearing life jackets and 27 percent of boating fatalities were from falls overboard. In addition to boating falls, the activity that caused the most water-related fatalities was swimming in undesignated areas.

To many, these heartbreaking statistics may only occupy their thoughts briefly as a report reviewed at an Army Corps of Engineer Headquarters or by local law enforcement, or as a soundbite heard on the local evening news.

To friends, classmates and neighbors, every one of these events is a tragedy–a seat left open in school or at church–to families it is the end of the world.

Our Park Rangers can tell you that every one of the 33 public fatalities we have experienced this year was not simply a number but a sad human story that we need to learn from to save lives in the future. No one thinks it will happen to him or his friends or loved ones, but it happens time after time. And nearly every time, it could have been prevented with a little thought, concern and action.

The Army Corps of Engineers has a water safety campaign currently going on that sums it up quite simply: Life Jackets Worn…Nobody Mourns. Please take these words to heart this holiday weekend and every time you are in or on the water.

There’s a saying that everybody is someone’s universe. Each time we record a fatality at one of our parks or lakes, someone’s universe has ended. It’s a tragic ending, much more than a statistic, and so unnecessary.

Flood or drought: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is there

Brig. Gen. David Hill
Commander, Southwestern Division

Brig. Gen. David Hill, commander, Southwestern Division.
Brig. Gen. David Hill, commander, Southwestern Division.

Remember the drought? What a difference a year can make.  I arrived at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Southwestern Division in Dallas about a year ago, and most of the region was in some stage of drought. News coverage highlighted striking images of thirsty lakes, shorelines receding with lakebeds cracked and dry, and low Corps reservoir levels. Communities chafed under lawn watering restrictions.

The story line has changed in the last two months, as rain—lots of it—drenched us, swelled our rivers and tributaries, and filled many of our reservoirs to overflowing.   One after another, all four of our Southwestern Division districts in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas declared an emergency, the first time in our 78-year history.

The public followed us as we closely monitored our lake levels, and—always in coordination with local authorities and our partners—tweaked the water releases from the area lakes. People gathered to watch water coming over the spillways, and eagerly consumed the daily reports of which lakes were rising and the cubic feet per second releases from our reservoirs.

Our neighbors in the communities across our region witnessed, understood, and appreciated the efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers. They publicly praised and thanked us, in print and in social media, positive feedback that any government agency would greatly appreciate. We are deeply grateful for their understanding and support.

What they saw was not an anomaly. It was a very professional and dedicated cadre of engineers, hydrologists, and operations specialists carrying out their jobs around the clock at solidly built structures that were doing what they were designed to do: protect people and property during a potential flood event.

Flood risk management is the first and most significant benefit that Army Corps of Engineers lakes provide as a value to the nation, and the reservoirs along these lakes throughout our region were built primarily because of devastating floods in the last century.

Within the Southwestern Division, we have a robust Flood Risk Management program, with 74 flood damage reduction lakes/reservoirs; 33.22 million acre-feet of flood storage (in non-engineer math, that’s about 13,984 Cowboy Stadiums); and $85 billion in cumulative flood damage prevention. These figures do not include our 760 miles of local flood protection projects. Nationally, for every $1 invested (adjusted for inflation), Corps of Engineers flood protection systems prevent about $7.89 in damages.

While we don’t know yet how much damage was prevented this time around by Corps reservoirs, we do know historically what happened before they were built:   devastating floods, with countless lives lost, thousands left homeless, and astronomical property damages. With the growth in communities and industry that has occurred in the last 50 years, the loss of life and damage that could have occurred without these reservoirs is simply unthinkable.

Our reservoirs performed as designed—because they always do, whether flood or drought. They operate on a life cycle approach. During a flood event, they allow us to hold and then make controlled releases to prevent flooding downstream. During a drought, they allow us to store rainwater that has fallen earlier and conserve it for other authorized uses, such as water supply or hydropower.

So when these very reservoirs were operating during the drought, they still supplied hydropower to the Southwestern Power Administration in Oklahoma, for example, or water to North Texas Municipal Water District in Texas. And they were operating as designed.

Our infrastructure also sustained some damage, and that damage must be thoroughly assessed and repaired. Think of the scope of the rainfall: 35 trillion gallons of rain in Texas in May alone, enough to cover the entire state of Texas in 8 inches of water.

Some of that damage was to our recreation facilities on the lakes, which provide another authorized purpose of these projects: recreation. Many of our recreational areas were closed for Memorial Day, and might not be open until Labor Day. We know that’s an inconvenience for people. We ask for your continued support.   We’ll make every effort to reopen as quickly and as safely as possible.

But our primary goal must continue to be flood risk management, the reason that the reservoirs were built. Our attention will be on getting them back into top shape to protect you and your community—which is, after all, our community too—for the next major weather event that comes our way.

Thank you again, partners, stakeholders, and community members for your great support of the Army Corps of Engineers! As we have seen these past two months, our greatest partnership is when we all work together as and for the American people.