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NRC Says Corps of Engineers Infrastructure on an Unsustainable Path

NRC Says Corps of Engineers’ Infrastructure on an Unsustainable Path

The National Research Council (NRC) committee on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Water Resources Science, Engineering and Planning has released a report entitled “Corps of Engineers Water Resources Structure: Deterioration, Investment or Divestment?” It reports that the Corps has been unable to maintain its navigation channels, locks, dams, and levees in recent years because of constantly declining budgets.

“Over the past century, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has built a vast network of water management infrastructure that includes approximately 700 dams, 14,000 miles of levees, 12,000 miles of river navigation channels and control structures, harbors and ports, and other facilities,” the NRC said.

“Since the mid-1980s, federal funding for new project construction and major rehabilitation has declined steadily. As a result, much of the nation’s water resources infrastructure is now deteriorating and wearing out faster than it is being replaced.”

Part of the problem arises from the ever-expanding role of the Corps in water resources engineering, the report said. The Corps began as an agency organized to regulate and expedite navigation on the nation’s rivers; its mission has since grown to include flood control projects, hydropower generation, and port and harbor maintenance, NRC added.

“In an earlier era, it was easier to integrate a smaller number of missions, and to share expertise and experience among them. Today, however, the larger number of responsibilities makes agency-wide integration difficult,” the report said.

“Due to insufficient funding, many portions of the Corps of Engineers’ water infrastructure are not being maintained at acceptable levels of performance and efficiency,” the NRC added. “There is, however, no single, obvious path forward for alternative funding mechanisms to maintain or upgrade existing Corps infrastructure.”

The NRC laid out five options for the Corps to consider as it faces greater demands on its funds for infrastructure.

Option 1: Business as usual
Funding from the Corps annual budget has been declining steadily and is inadequate to cover all operation, maintenance, and rehabilitation needs. Under the business-as-usual option, the Corps will continue to operate its existing water infrastructure with inadequate funding for all operations, maintenance and rehabilitation needs. This will entail more frequent infrastructure failure and negative social, economic, and public safety consequences. The potential extent of these negative consequences is not well understood. Barring action from Congress and the administration to allow significant changes in current business models and available federal funding, the status quo may be the most likely path forward.

Option 2: Increase federal funding for operations, maintenance and rehabilitation
There has been a long-term declining trend in funding for Corps water resources infrastructure construction and rehabilitation across numerous federal budgets. The future viability of this option is not clear.

Option 3: Divest or decommission parts of Corps infrastructure
Decommissioning obsolete projects, or divesting projects of decreased importance from the Corps mission, would help the Corps focus on the highest priority maintenance needs. However, the Corps does not have the authority to do this and instead, seeks to provide safe and efficient operations of all infrastructure, given the available resources. Giving the Corps the authority to decommission or divest responsibility for some water infrastructure components would require action by Congress or the administration
Option 4: Increase revenue from Corps project beneficiaries
Opportunities exist for expansion of revenue capture from water resources infrastructure, especially for inland navigation and hydropower projects. However, legal and other barriers will necessitate congressional action to expand such revenue streams.

Option 5: Some components of the Corps water infrastructure entail shared responsibilities and activities with private entities. In some cases, the private sector could operate Corps water infrastructure with increased efficiencies or reduced costs. Partnerships between public and private entities could help bring new resources to the operation, maintenance, and rehabilitation of Corps water infrastructure. The best opportunities for public-private partnerships for Corps water infrastructure are not immediately clear. Establishing such partnerships is complicated, may take years to develop, and is affected by many site-specific, unique circumstances. Given these complexities and uncertainties, an evaluation of partnership opportunities would help identify the most immediate, promising prospects. This evaluation would be best conducted by an entity outside of the Corps of Engineers with relevant expertise and knowledge of water infrastructure operations and financing.

The complete report can be found on the Web site of the National Academy Press,

(Paraphrasing and summary from the Water Resources Coalition.)

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