U.S. Army's aging water infrastructure sought for improvements

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers looks to private and public sector partnerships as options to manage aging water infrastructures and seeks to maintain its national water projects at acceptable levels of performance.

Oct 4th, 2012

WASHINGTON, Oct. 4, 2012 -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers faces an "unsustainable situation" in maintaining its national water projects at acceptable levels of performance, says a new report from the National Research Council. The report suggests expanding revenues and strengthening partnerships among the private and public sectors as options to manage the Corps' aging water infrastructure, which includes levees and dams.

"The country's water resources infrastructure is largely built-out, and there are limited sites to construct new projects," said David Dzombak, chair of the committee that wrote the report and professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Steinbrenner Institute of Environmental Education and Research at Carnegie Mellon University. "Today, the Corps focuses mainly on sustaining its existing structures, some of which are in states of significant deterioration and disrepair. Funding for maintenance and rehabilitation of Corps water resources infrastructure -- which includes navigation locks and dams, flood management levees and dams, and other facilities -- has been inadequate for decades. We now have a scenario where the water infrastructure is wearing out faster than it is being replaced or rehabilitated. Some components could be decommissioned or divested, but the Corps does not have the authority to do this."

The Corps is authorized to carry out projects in several mission areas that include navigation, flood risk management, ecosystem restoration, hurricane and storm damage reduction, water supply, hydroelectric power generation, and recreation. Currently its extensive infrastructure consists of approximately 700 dams, 14,000 miles of federal levees, and 12,000 miles of river navigation channel and control structures. Because of its many different authorities and programs, the Corps' successes in addressing maintenance and rehabilitation issues in one mission area often do not transfer easily to other mission areas.

The Corps' division and district offices set some priorities for maintenance and rehabilitation of existing projects within annual budgets. However, there is no defined distribution of responsibility among Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Corps for national-level prioritization of investments in maintenance and rehabilitation for existing water infrastructure, the report says. For major rehabilitation projects, decisions about funding are the responsibility of Congress and OMB.

A more systematic approach toward water infrastructure maintenance and rehabilitation will require breaking with some management traditions and practices, the committee said. For example, for Congress and OMB to place higher priority on maintenance issues, some reorientation away from a current strong focus on new projects via periodic Water Resources Development Acts is needed. In addition, more specific direction from the executive branch and Congress regarding priorities for maintenance investments will be crucial to sustaining the Corps' high-priority and most valuable infrastructure, the committee emphasized. Decommissioning or divesting some components should also be considered.

The committee said that partnerships with states, communities, and the private sector could yield new resources and more efficient methods, especially in hydropower generation, flood risk management, and port and harbor maintenance. Based on other hydropower systems such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the committee estimated that Corps hydropower revenues could be increased by rehabilitating and upgrading hydropower projects to improve efficiency of turbine and related power generation and distribution systems. With regard to flood risk management, reducing federal resources available to construct traditional, structural projects would present opportunities to implement nonstructural flood control options, such as zoning and building codes, that often are efficient, cost less, and provide greater environmental benefits. They also offer a chance for the Corps to extend its partnerships with local communities in providing technical advice and other types of support.

Maintaining the inland navigation system presents especially formidable challenges and choices for the Corps. Federal resources for construction and rehabilitation have declined steadily, and proposals to generate additional revenue by charging lockage fees to system users have been resisted historically. Parts of the system could be decommissioned, but that must be decided by Congress. Keeping the status quo of steady deterioration would entail significant disruptions in service, the committee said.

The report calls for an independent investigation of the opportunities for additional partnerships for operations and maintenance of Corps water infrastructure. Examples of such partnerships include those developed with private entities by state and local governments for port operation. Given the complexities of each Corps mission area, opportunities for new arrangements and greater efficiencies need to be investigated separately and carefully for each mission area.

The report was sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are independent, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under an 1863 congressional charter. Panel members, who serve pro bono as volunteers, are chosen by the Academies for each study based on their expertise and experience and must satisfy the Academies' conflict-of-interest standards. The resulting consensus reports undergo external peer review before completion. For more information, visit http://national-academies.org/studycommitteprocess.pdf.

###

More in Infrastructure Funding