Expert Report

Corps of Engineers Water Resources Infrastructure: Deterioration, Investment, or Divestment? (2012)

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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. Historically, the construction of new infrastructure dominated the Corps' water resources budget and activities. Today, national water needs and priorities increasingly are shifting to operations, maintenance, and rehabilitation of existing infrastructure, much of which has exceeded its design life. However, since the mid-1980s federal funding for new project construction and major rehabilitation has declined steadily. As a result, much of the Corps' water resources infrastructure is deteriorating and wearing out faster than it is being replaced. This report explores the status of operations, maintenance, and rehabilitation of Corps water resources infrastructure, and identifies options for the Corps and the nation in setting maintenance and rehabilitation priorities.

Key Messages

  • Today, national water needs and priorities increasingly are shifting from new construction to operations, maintenance, and rehabilitation of existing infrastructure, much of which has exceeded its design life. Since the mid-1980s, dwindling federal resources have limited funds available for water infrastructure operations, maintenance, and rehabilitation, and there is a considerable backlog of deferred maintenance.
  • Over the years, the Corps' mission areas have diversified considerably. An original mission to ensure navigability of the nation's rivers was broadened in the early twentieth century to include flood risk management. Other Corps mission areas now include ecosystem restoration, hydropower generation, water supply, hurricane and storm damage reduction, and recreation. Each of these areas differs significantly in terms of enabling legislation, taxation and revenue sources, clients, and relations with the private sector. In an earlier era, it was easier to integrate a smaller number of missions, and to share expertise among them. Today, the Corps' large number of responsibilities makes agency-wide integration difficult. The Corps faces challenges in its operations, maintenance, and rehabilitation duties given that its roles, partnerships, and successes in one mission area are not transferred easily to other areas or activities.
  • Greater private sector involvement is often raised as one option for increasing efficiencies and revenues for public agencies or works. Opportunities for greater public sector involvement in Corps infrastructure operations and maintenance activities vary by mission area and economic sector. In general, these opportunities are greater for flood risk management, port and harbor maintenance, and hydropower generation, and less for inland navigation. Congress and the executive branch should commission an independent investigation of opportunities for different kinds of partnership for Corps water infrastructure operations, maintenance, and rehabilitation.
  • The main process for authorizing new federal water projects is through the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). 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 Water Resources Development Act was not designed to identify and establish priority actions for existing Corps water infrastructure. Congress provides annual appropriations for maintenance and rehabilitation of existing federal water infrastructure, which represents a de facto process for setting priorities. Higher congressional and administration priority on operations, maintenance, and rehabilitation issues will require some reorientation away from the present strong focus on the Water Resources Development Act.
  • Wise infrastructure investments will not necessarily repair Corps infrastructure to the same configuration that existed in the 1940s or 1950s. Future operations, maintenance, and rehabilitation investments should be guided by principles based on economics of infrastructure investment.
  • Due to insufficient funding, many portions of the Corps of Engineers' water infrastructure are not being maintained at acceptable levels of performance and efficiency. There is, however, no single, obvious path forward for alternative funding mechanisms to maintain or upgrade existing Corps infrastructure, or to decommission portions of that infrastructure. The report's authoring committee considered the range of options available to the Corps, the U.S. Congress, the administration, and Corps project beneficiaries, identifying several potential future paths that might be taken. These options are summarized in the report.
  • More specific direction from the U.S. Congress regarding priority maintenance investment needs will be crucial to sustaining the agency's high priority and most valuable projects. The executive branch also could play a more aggressive role in promoting dialogue between the Corps and the Congress on existing infrastructure investment needs and priorities.