Expert Report

National Water Resources Challenges Facing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (2011)

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers faces a water planning paradox: demands on national water resources are increasing and becoming more complex and, at the same time, federal budgets for water resources infrastructure are declining. Relatively new project goals, such as the restoration of ecosystems, are being added to the agency's traditional projects and responsibilities. Competing and growing demands for water resource project benefits, combined with the natural limits of hydrologic and ecological systems, present increasingly contentious decision making challenges. This National Research Council report affirms a need for Corps of Engineers leadership in many of the nation's major river and aquatic systems, as there will be a continued need for an innovative and responsive Corps to help address many national water planning challenges. This report is the first in a series of five annual reports providing independent advice on an array of strategic and planning issues, requested by the Corps.

Key Messages

  • The challenges confronting the Corps of Engineers also offer opportunities to implement new, creative approaches to water management, including working collaboratively among state and local governments, other federal agencies, and the private sector.
  • The Corps' future activities will focus less on constructing major civil works and more on: (1) operating, maintaining, rehabilitating, and upgrading existing infrastructure, (2) re-allocating reservoir storage and releases among changing water resources demands and users, and (3) providing some degree of restoration and ecological services in heavily altered ecosystems.
  • Declining investment in the civil works infrastructure owned and operated by the Corps has contributed to considerable deferred costs for maintaining infrastructure for flood and hurricane protection and for commercial navigation.
  • Congress and the nation will continue to rely upon the Corps for emergency response activities and for periodic upgrades to civil works infrastructure.
  • The nation expects the Corps to provide services such as flood control, water-based recreation, commercial navigation, ecosystem restoration, hydropower production, and coastal and beach protection. Project beneficiaries often compete for resources within hydrologic and ecologic systems that have limited benefits, making it difficult for the Corps to consistently satisfy all user groups.
  • A large backlog of water resources projects that are authorized but not yet funded, along with a backlog of existing maintenance needs, impedes the Corps' ability to deliver water project construction and maintenance in a timely and efficient manner.