The Nation's Water Infrastructure
The economic and physical security of the United States, along with the quality of life of its citizens, depends on the continued reliability of water resources infrastructure systems, especially those under the purview of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
By Steven L. Stockton, P.E., SES
USACE’s navigation responsibilities include 12,000-mi of navigable waterway, 926 harbors, and 236 inland locks at 192 sites. Above, dredging operations at McAlpine Locks, Louisville, Ky. PHOTO COURTESY USACE
According to the Institute for Water Resources, from 2010–2012, the Civil Works Program of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) provided an annual estimated National Economic Development net benefit of $87.1 billion, and stimulated $27.3 billion in returns to the U.S. Treasury. With program spending somewhat above $5 billion a year, that equates to a 16-to-1 return in terms of economic benefits, and a 5-to-1 return in revenue to the Treasury.
It is hard to imagine a United States without the water resources provided by USACE infrastructure, which includes more than 12,000-mi of inland navigable waterways, 900 ports and harbors, 14,000-mi of levees, 700 dams, 230 lock chambers, 75 hydropower plants, and 4,000 recreation sites. USACE projects prevent an estimated $48.5 billion in damages annually from storms and severe weather. Our inland waterways move freight at half the cost of rail and one-tenth the cost of truck transportation. Harbors maintained by USACE handle 95 percent of America’s import and export trade. Our hydropower projects produce an annual average of 71.6–billion-kWh of clean energy and generate about $1.5 billion in revenue.
The nation’s economic and physical security, along with its quality of life, depends on the continued reliability of its water resources infrastructure systems, especially those under the purview of USACE. But those systems, and the program that supports them, are being challenged.
INVENTORY OF CHALLENGES
65 percent of USACE dams are greater than 30 years old and 28 percent have already surpassed their intended economic life of 50 years. Other infrastructure in the Corps’ portfolio is similarly aged. As this infrastructure deteriorates the need for robust maintenance and major rehabilitation work increases. Constrained federal resources, however, limit USACE’s ability to make significant improvements or needed repairs. The longer such work is delayed, the greater the expense to repair and the higher the risk of failure.
Resource issues have forced numerous project sites to shift from a focus on preventive maintenance (fix before it fails) to one of reactive maintenance (fix as it fails). USACE has completed comprehensive inventory of its infrastructure assets and is developing a strategy for prioritized investments, assessing condition risk and measuring the value of each project to the nation. Identifying where limited resources should be directed to maximize their effectiveness to achieve the desired levels of performance should optimize the value of the Civil Works portfolio for the nation.
The major underlying issue is resources. Even the federal government cannot afford to properly maintain the Corps’ inventory, let alone be able to invest in enough new projects to meet current and future water resources needs. We need to reach out to non-federal partners.
USACE is exploring alternative financing options for infrastructure investment, evaluating options currently applied to other infrastructure sectors such as public-private and public-public partnerships, special experimental projects, and the ability to transfer projects that no longer have a federal interest to willing partners and private sector interests.
There are existing authorities that can be leveraged for critical Civil Works water resources infrastructure. The initial phase of USACE’s alternative financing strategy has been to test these authorities through demonstration level projects. Some potential demonstration projects are focusing on real estate easement, fee simple or other interests in land that can be exchanged for work in kind to support project operation and maintenance. Other demonstration projects have arisen simply by project sponsors requesting to contribute funds to increase their non-federal share, thereby enabling projects to move forward.
For example, an agreement was reached with the State of Oregon to contribute up to $5 million per year for five years to support small harbor maintenance dredging. Similar agreements are in progress with North Carolina and Michigan.
NAVIGATING NEW SOLUTIONS
There are challenges to the Civil Works Program, however, that go beyond resources. These include a “no-earmark” environment; too many studies or projects funded at less than capability, which results in delays and “stop and start” funding; and projects and studies that take too long to complete and cost too much. Sponsors and stakeholders are frustrated by the lack of progress, and increased time and costs.
To meet these challenges, USACE embarked in 2012 on a process to transform the program and the organization’s culture to improve performance and increase customer satisfaction and public confidence. This process consists of four elements: planning modernization, budget development, delivering quality products and services, and the Corps Infrastructure Strategy.
Budget development transformation is linking business lines to national objectives and engaging stakeholders in building a budget to achieve desired economic, environmental, and quality of life outcomes. While the approach reduces the number of projects funded, those projects that do get funded are funded to capacity, enabling USACE to complete them faster and then move on to others.
Planning modernization is focusing on shortening the study timeframe for potential new projects to lower costs with a prioritized current portfolio of planning studies that follow the “3x3x3” rule and streamlined planning reports. The 3x3x3 role means feasibility studies completed in no more than three years, for $3 million and with three levels of engagement.
Completing studies in a reasonable timeframe and with more cost-effective solutions will be coupled with recruiting, developing and sustaining high quality planning expertise and updated guidance.
President Obama signed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA) into law on June 10, 2014. WRRDA is the primary legislationby which Congress authorizes USACE’s key Civil Works missions, including navigation, flood risk management and environmental restoration. WRRDA authorizes 34 projects for construction that have completed technical review and have been recommended in Chief of Engineers’ Reports. WRRDA also reduces the existing USACE construction backlog by de-authorizing $18 billion of old, inactive projects.
For studies, WRRDA codifies the 3x3x3 rule into law, eliminates the requirement for reconnaissance studies in advance of a full feasibility study, and provides a process for project sponsors to develop a list of projects for Congress to consider. WRRDA, however, is strictly authorizing legislation; it does not include funding. Funding is accomplished separately as part of the annual appropriations process.
Our transformation efforts additionally include an infrastructure strategy to support economic prosperity, global competitiveness, security and environmental sustainability. The strategy involves an assessment of desired levels of service, acceptable levels of risk and the consequences of failure, and ensures that the value of services provided by water infrastructure is worth the investment. It also considers alternative financing strategies such as public-private partnerships, user fee enhancements and infrastructure banks.
TRANSFORMING FOR TOMORROW
Beyond dams and levees and inland waterways, USACE through its Civil Works Program is the nation’s environmental engineer, with one of the largest environmental and sustainability roles in the federal government. This includes delivering aquatic ecosystem restoration in places like the Florida Everglades, Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes and San Francisco Bay.
USACE also is responsible for increasing resilience to climate change and sea-level rise. Under the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, USACE obligated almost $1 billion in 2014 in recovery and risk reduction in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy.
Transforming Civil Works is requiring new and refined processes and methods of delivery, along with a highly skilled workforce that is ready to respond to current and future demands.
The end result will be high-quality and timely products and services for our customers and stakeholders—and reliable water resources for America.