Over the past century the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has built a vast network of water management infrastructure. This includes the construction of 700 dams, 22,500km of levees and 19,000km of river navigation channels and control structures, amongst other facilities. Today, however, the country’s national water infrastructure is in the situation where it is described as being ‘built out’. There are now fewer opportunities and only a limited number of undeveloped sites remaining for new projects. New construction has been on a steady decline since the 1980s and priorities have changed: national water needs have been shifting towards operations, maintenance and rehabilitation. However, during the same period, funding has not only declined steadily for civil works and new construction but for major rehabilitation as well.

There now is a considerable backlog of deferred maintenance and much of the Corps’ water resources infrastructure is deteriorating and wearing out faster than it is being replaced. Since the 1980s its estimated value has decreased by US$73B.

Unsustainable situation?
According to a recent report prepared by the National Research Council the USACE faces an ‘unsustainable situation’ in maintaining its national water projects at acceptable levels of performance. To re-iterate this point the example is given of USACE dams. Approximately 95% of dams operated by the Corps are more than 30 years old. Fifty-two percent have now reached or exceeded the 50-year economic service lives for which they were designed.

“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 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 the Corps’ water resources infrastructure 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."

Over the years the Corps’ mission areas have diversified considerably. Originally its responsibility was to ensure the navigability of US rivers but this broadened in the 1920s and 1930s to include flood risk management. Again this has since expanded to encompass hydropower production, ecosystem restoration, water supply, hurricane/storm damage reduction, plus recreation. Consequently the Corps’ large number of responsibilities makes agency-wide integration difficult. Success in addressing maintenance and rehabilitation issues in one mission area often does 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 (OMB) and the Corps for national prioritisation 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 towards 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. The Water Resources Development Act was developed in an earlier era when new water project construction was a high national priority, and maintenance and rehabilitation were lower priorities. The Act was not designed to identify and establish priority actions for existing Corps water infrastructure but was the main process for authorising new federal water projects.

In addition, more specific direction from Congress regarding priorities for maintenance investments will be crucial to sustaining the Corps’ high priority and most valuable infrastructure, the committee emphasised. 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 and flood risk management. For example the Tennessee Valley Authority implemented efficiency improvements in the 1980s and 1990s that increased hydropower generation by 34%. With estimates suggesting that hydropower projects could generate at least 20% more power with efficiency improvements and current water flows, this could provide significant new revenues. Although some modifications to operating regulations would be required by US congress, hydropower is seen to be in a good position to use public-private partnerships to increase capability and reliability.

The reduction of federal resources available to construct traditional structural flood control projects can present opportunities to implement non-structural options such as zoning and building codes. These can often be efficient, cost less and provide greater environmental benefits, the report said. They also offer a chance for the Corps to extend its partnerships with local communities in providing technical advice and other types of support. Many of these strategies have worked well in other parts of the country but have not really received full consideration due to the historical emphasis on large engineered civil works for flood protection.

The report calls for an independent investigation of the opportunities for additional partnerships for the operations and maintenance of Corps’ water infrastructure. Given the complexities of each of the Corps’ mission area, opportunities for new arrangements and greater efficiencies need to be investigated separately and carefully for each mission area. Wise infrastructure investments will not necessarily repair infrastructure to the same configuration that existed in the 1940s or 1950s but the report says, future operations, maintenance and rehabilitation investment should be guided by principles based on the economics of infrastructure investment.

Alternative funding
There is no single obvious path forward for alternative funding mechanisms to maintain or upgrade existing infrastructure, or to decommission portions of that infrastructure. The report’s authoring committee considered the range of options available and identified several potential future paths that might be taken. The following options are summarised in the report:

1. Business as usual
Under the business as usual scenario USACE will continue to operate its facilities with inadequate funding for all O&M and rehabilitation. Without any action from the government this status quo may be the likely path forward.

2. Increase federal funding for O&M and rehabilitation
The feasibility of this is not clear seeing as there has been a long term decline in funding.

3. Divest or decommission parts of USACE infrastructure
Decommissioning obsolete projects or divesting those of less importance will help focus on those with greatest maintenance needs.

4. Increase revenue from project beneficiaries
Opportunities exist to generate revenue from existing infrastructure such as hydropower projects. Legal and other barriers exist for such development.

5. Expand partnership
Sharing responsibilities with private entities has potential. Public-private partnerships could bring in new resources for O&M and rehabilitation. An independent evaluation of these is required.

6. Combination of options 2-5: A need for federal leadership
Leadership and co-operation from US Congress is required to help USACE resolve many of the challenges it faces in prioritising maintenance and rehabilitation, as well as securing funding for this work. More specific direction from the US Congress regarding priority maintenance investment needs will be crucial to sustaining the agency’s high priority and most valuable projects.

[REFERENCE]The report called Corps of Engineers Water Resources Infrastructure: Deterioration, Investment, or Divestment? was published in October 2012. Sponsored by the US Army Corps of Engineers, it is the second in a series of five from the National Research Council Committee on US Army Corps of Engineers Water Resources Science, Engineering and Planning