Water resources infrastructure deteriorating

[ Water infrastructure has inter-dependencies with other essential infrastructure, if dams or levees fail, agriculture and electric power suffer, towns and homes flooded. If ports along the ocean and inland water ways aren’t maintained and waterways dredged, the by far the most efficient form of transportation, shipping, energy is wasted on less efficient rail and trucks.

What follows are a few excerpts from this 121 page National Research Council report.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

NRC. 2012. Corps of Engineers Water Resources Infrastructure: Deterioration, Investment, or Divestment? National Research Council, National Academies Press.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) has major federal responsibilities for supporting flood risk management activities in communities across the nation, ensuring navigable channels on the nation’s waterways, and restoring aquatic ecosystems. The Corps also has authorities to provide water supply, protect and maintain beaches, generate hydroelectric power, support water-based recreation, and ensure design depths in the nation’s ports, harbors, and associated channels. The Corps is the federal government’s largest producer of hydropower and a leading provider of outdoor recreation areas and facilities. The Corps of Engineers also regulates alteration of wetlands.

To meet its responsibilities in these various sectors, the Corps of Engineers has built incrementally what now comprises an extensive water resources management infrastructure that includes approximately 700 dams, 14,000 miles of levees in the federal levee system, and 12,000 miles of river navigation channel and control structures.

This infrastructure has been developed over the course of more than a century, most of it on an individual project basis, within varying contexts of system planning. From a macroscale perspective, the water resources infrastructure of the nation is largely “built out.”  New water projects of course will be constructed in the future, but given that most of the nation’s major river and coastal systems have been developed, there are reduced opportunities for new water resources infrastructure construction.

Ecosystem restoration was added as a primary missions area for the Corps in 1996 and has been the main focus of new construction. Large portions of the Corps’ water resources infrastructure were built in the first half of the twentieth century and are experiencing various stages of decay and disrepair. Project maintenance and rehabilitation are thus high priority needs for Corps water infrastructure. Funding streams in the U.S. federal budget over the past 20 years consistently have been inadequate to maintain all of this infrastructure at acceptable levels of performance and efficiency. In instances where the Corps shares maintenance responsibilities with a nonfederal partner (e.g., many of the flood risk management projects built by the Corps), local or state funds are less available than in recent past years. The water resources infrastructure of the Corps of Engineers thus is wearing out faster than it is being replaced or rehabilitated. Estimated to have a value of $237 billion in the 1980s, the estimated value of that infrastructure today is approximately $164 billion.

ASSETS. The Corps’ primary civil works mission areas are navigation, flood risk management, and ecosystem restoration. The Corps also has authorities, responsibilities, and programs for hydropower generation, harbors and ports, recreation, and coastal and beach protection.

The Corps’ original involvement in national water resources planning dates back to the nineteenth century and its work in ensuring navigable rivers. In the twentieth century, and after 1927 Mississippi River flooding and resulting damages, the Corps became involved in flood damage reduction

The inland navigation system presents an especially formidable challenge and a set of difficult choices. There are limited options and stark realities, including:

  • Funding from Congress for project construction and rehabilitation has been declining steadily.
  • Lockage fees on users/direct beneficiaries could be implemented. These are resisted by users and others.
  • Parts of the system could be decommissioned or divested and the extent of the system decreased.
  • The status quo is a likely future path, but it will entail continued deterioration of the system and eventual, significant disruptions in service. It also implies that the system will be modified by deterioration, rather than by plan.


The Corps of Engineers has constructed, operates, and maintains a vast national water resources infrastructure, with various facilities in all 50 U.S. states. The traditional mission areas of the Corps were flood control and navigation enhancement, and the agency has constructed tens of thousands of miles of levees, hundreds of locks and dams for navigation, and dams for multiple purposes, including hydroelectric power generation.

The Corps has constructed channel control structures along hundreds of miles of rivers and along the intracoastal waterways of the southern and eastern United States.

The Corps also has important responsibilities in ensuring navigable depths in the nation’s ports and harbors.

Corps water resources infrastructure affects river flows and levels on many of the nation’s large river systems, including the Columbia, Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio Rivers.

Much of the Corps of Engineers water resources infrastructure was constructed many decades ago. Approximately 95% of the dams managed by the Corps are more than 30 years old, and 52% have reached or exceeded their 50-year project lives.

Similar statistics can be cited for Corps levees, hydropower, and other facilities. This deterioration of Corps water resources infrastructure is a microcosm of larger national trends in the deteriorating condition of major infrastructure, including highways, bridges, roads, airports, and drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities. Degradation of U.S. infrastructure has been discussed in many fora, such as the well-known annual infrastructure ‘report cards’ 12 issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers. In addition to aging Corps water infrastructure, in particular, federal resources for major rehabilitation have decreased. Since the mid-1980s, the constant dollar value estimate of the net capital stock civil works projects of the Corps has decreased from roughly $237 billion to about $164 billion.

The Monongahela River, which flows from West Virginia to Pittsburgh, where it joins the Allegheny River to form the Ohio River, was one of the nation’s first inland waterways to have a lock and dam infrastructure installed to aid river navigation. Construction of the first locks and dams was initiated in 1837 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The federal government also constructed locks and dams in the Monongahela, and in the late nineteenth century the federal government took over the entire system. The present navigation system comprises nine locks and dams and was constructed by the Corps of Engineers beginning in 1902. Locks and Dams 2, 3, and 4 in the Lower Monongahela River, just south of Pittsburgh, are the three oldest currently operating navigation facilities on the river and experience the largest volume of commercial traffic for the river.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed, operates, and maintains a vast water resources infrastructure across the United States that includes dams, levees, and coastal barriers for flood risk management, locks and dams for inland navigation, ports and harbors, and hydropower generation facilities. Much of this infrastructure exhibits considerable maintenance and rehabilitation needs. Federal investments in civil works infrastructure for water management have been declining since the mid-1980s, and today there are considerable deferred rehabilitation and maintenance needs

The Corps has constructed, and operates and maintains, a large portion of the infrastructure that supports the nation’s commercial inland waterways and its ports and harbors. Corps-maintained waterways and ports support commercial navigation in 41 U.S. states. In considering the current state of the Corps’ navigation infrastructure and its options for rehabilitating and upgrading that infrastructure, it is important to recognize several distinctions between infrastructure for inland navigation and that for harbors and ports. Important differences between these systems in terms of taxation, public and private funding and facilities ownership, companies that use the facilities, and other factors will affect the direction of future infrastructure rehabilitation and upgrades.

Inland Navigation

The commercial inland navigation system includes roughly 12,000 miles of maintained river channels and 191 locks sites with 238 navigation lock chambers. Figure 3-1 shows the scope of the Corps-maintained inland waterways system. The U.S. inland navigation system is used to ship bulk commodities such as corn and soybeans, coal, fertilizer, fuel oil, scrap metal, and aggregate (sand and gravel). Some of this cargo may transit nearly the entire length of the system. For example, corn and soybeans are shipped from across the Midwestern United States down the Ohio, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers to the Port of New Orleans, then exported. By contrast, some portions of the system are used primarily for local transport. For example, of total commodity tonnage shipped on the Missouri River between 1994 and 2006, 83 percent was estimated to originate and/or terminate in the state of Missouri, with 84 percent of the shipments consisting of sand and gravel (GAO, 2009). The Atlantic and Gulf Intracoastal water-ways also provide commercial transportation corridors. All portions of the inland navigation system also serve recreational uses, but it is commercial that primarily justifies and helps fund the system. The system is used primarily by U.S. based, domestic shipping companies. Lock and dam facilities on the inland navigation system are federally owned, operated, maintained, and rehabilitated

Some portions of the Atlantic and Gulf Intracoastal Waterways, however, are operated and maintained by the states they border. There have been major changes to the U.S. economy, patterns of trade, and other cargo transportation alternatives since much of the inland navigation system was constructed several decades ago. Before the nation had its currently extensive rail and highway systems, “inland waterways were a primary means of transporting bulk goods” (Stern, 2012). Today, alternative modes for shipping inland navigation goods—namely, roads and rail—are in a more advanced state of development than during the period when the lock and dam projects were constructed. Although they remain important transportation modes for some sectors in some areas, “inland waterways are a relatively small part of the nation’s overall freight transportation network”. The topics of relative costs, energy uses and efficiencies, and environmental impacts of rail, road, and barge transport make for lively debate among users of these respective modes.

Another important aspect of the inland navigation system is that its locks and dams create extensive upstream navigation pools. These navigation pools often affect river ecosystems up- and downstream for tens of miles. The inland navigation system thus affects many public resources and many private system users beyond commercial cargo carriers. There are impacts on floodplain lands overseen by federal government agencies (such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), private landowners, and recreational users, including boaters and anglers. The navigation pools are sources of both beneficial and negative effects. Ports and Harbors The Corps of Engineers maintains 926 coastal, Great Lakes, and inland harbors (Figure 3-2). U.S. harbors and ports operate in a setting very different from the inland navigation system. For example, U.S. harbors and ports handle a wider variety and higher volume and value of cargo than does the inland navigation system. Many more shippers use U.S. harbor and port facilities compared to the inland navigation system, and these shippers include both U.S. domestic and international companies.

The harbors and ports generally are operated as public-private partnerships, and do not depend on direct federal resources. Corps responsibilities in ports and harbors are focused on dredging to maintain desired navigation and docking depths. The Corps also maintains wave/surge protection structures at some ports and harbors. This division of responsibilities and limited role for the federal government allows harbors and ports to pursue a broader range of partnerships and financing options.

There are generally fewer cost-effective alternatives to maritime transport for intercontinental or trans-ocean shipment for larger, heavier bulk goods such as coal and petroleum. This provides strong incentives for all port and harbor users and beneficiaries to be interested in port and harbor maintenance.

The Olmstead locks and dam project will replace 1920s-era Locks and Dams 52 and 53, the first two on the Ohio River above the confluence with the Mississippi River. These two aged facilities handle about 90 million tons of cargo annually, the highest cargo tonnage in the entire inland waterways system. Completion of the Olmsted Locks and Dam project, first authorized in the Water Resources Development Act of 1988, is the highest priority inland waterways project for the Corps of Engineers. The project is located about 20 miles upstream of the Mississippi River, near Olmsted, Illinois. The project includes two 110-foot-wide by 1,200-foot-long lock chambers, and a 2,500-foot dam with navigable pass located near the Illinois shoreline. When the Olmsted project was authorized by Congress in 1988, the estimated cost was $775 million and the estimated completion date was 2000, but subsequent design changes, dam construction difficulties, and inadequate, start-stop funding have increased the cost estimate to $3.1 billion and extended the projected completion date to 2024. The twin 1200-foot locks were completed in 2002 at a total cost of approximately $430 million, including the costs of the cofferdam and approach walls. The contract for the dam was awarded in 2004 and construction of the dam commenced in 2005. In 2004, the total project cost estimate was revised to $1.4 billion and the completion date to 2014, by 2011, the project cost estimate was revised to $2.1 billion and the completion date to 2018; and in March 2012 budget hearings the Corps revised the cost estimate to $3.1 billion and the completion date to 2024.

In summary, the inland navigation system relies more heavily on federal support for major maintenance than do ports and harbors, which depend more on fees from private shippers and investments from state and local governments. In an era of steady reduction of federal investments in civil works infrastructure, these distinctions may have sobering implications for prospects of future inland navigation infrastructure repairs and upgrades.

Infrastructure Status – Inland Navigation. Large portions of the inland navigation infrastructure were constructed in the first half of the twentieth century. Many dams on the Ohio River, for example, were built in the early 1900s, with some of them being constructed over one hundred years ago. The Upper Mississippi River 9-foot channel navigation project was authorized in the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1930 and completed by 1940. The Missouri River main-stem dams were authorized with passage of the 1944 Flood Control Act, and the Missouri River Bank Stabilization Project (BSNP) was authorized in the 1945 Rivers and Harbors Act. Officially completed in 1981, many revetments and other BSNP channel works were built during the 1950s and 1960s. Much of this navigation infrastructure is nearing the end of (or has exceeded) its design life and is in various states of disrepair. Investments in routine maintenance, upgrades, and rehabilitation for the infrastructure have lagged since the mid-1980s.

Prospects for Decommissioning

Decommissioning of a dam entails full or partial removal of an existing dam and its associated facilities, or significant changes to its operations thereof. In the United States, the process of dam decommissioning includes many of the same considerations as project construction

Dam decommissioning is not a simple process, nor is it without costs. Especially for larger dams, substantial advance planning is required,

Free-flowing rivers transport and remobilize sediments, especially during high flows associated with spring snowmelt and storm events. Deposition of these sediments on flood plains and coastal wetlands renews sediment lost through erosion and maintains the high productivity of these ecosystems, as described in the “flood pulse” concept. In turn, floodplain ecosystems attenuate floods, decreasing the magnitude of peak flows downstream, and coastal wetlands protect coastal communities from storm surges. In addition, riparian zones and floodplains provide critical habitats for aquatic biota and migratory birds.

The naturally varied hydrologic regime of free-flowing rivers provides a benefit in terms of maintaining aquatic biodiversity, especially in sustaining populations of endangered fish. Flow regulation can impair the survival of native fish by causing large daily variations in downstream flow to meet power demands and by creating barriers to upstream migration of salmon and steelhead.

Transportation Mode Alternatives

There often are alternative transport modes for the cargo that is shipped on the inland navigation system, the primary alternatives being rail and truck. For example, roughly one-third of U.S. grain exports today are shipped via rail to Portland, Oregon, where grain is transferred to ocean cargo ships. U.S. freight rail carriers have in many cases upgraded and modernized their fleets in recent decades and have become more energy efficient

Economic Efficiency and Future Infrastructure Investments

The level of funding available to repair and upgrade the entire U.S. inland navigation to safe and reliable conditions will not be available in the near future. Clearly, the future U.S. inland navigation system will be different from the system of 50-plus years ago.

There are some claims that reduced barge traffic would in turn lead to reduced exports and increased reliance on alternative modes that would be more fuel inefficient and cause more air pollution. However, there has been little research on modal substitution for different product shipments on the inland waterways system


The Corps of Engineers has constructed an extensive infrastructure designed to manage flood risks along rivers and also infrastructure to protect against surges from coastal storms. The Corps has built approximately 11,750 miles of riverine levees across the nation and provides shoreline protection for hundreds of miles of U.S. coastlines. Many of the Corps’ approximately 700 dams also serve flood control purposes. Like its infrastructure for navigation activities, a large portion of Corps of Engineers levees and other protective structures were constructed in the first half of the twentieth century or earlier and face many similar maintenance, rehabilitation, upgrade—and funding— issues.

Infrastructure Status Dams The Corps of Engineers today owns and operates approximately 700 dams. These dams range in size and purpose from large multipurpose projects to waterways navigation dams. Not all these dams serve flood control purposes. Navigation dams on the upper Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, for example, were not designed for flood protection and do not provide such benefits. Corps dams that provide flood risk reduction almost always support multiple purposes, such as hydroelectric power generation, water supply, and recreation. Approximately 95 percent of the dams managed by the Corps are more than 30 years old, and 52 percent have reached or exceeded nominal 50-year project lives.  Half of the Corps’ dam portfolio is actionable for rehabilitation, and that the potential requirements would exceed $20 billion. These dams are widely spread across the nation and exhibit varying degrees of deficiency and life-safety risk.


California’s Central Valley, one of the nation’s highly productive agricultural regions, is drained by the Sacramento River flowing from the north and the San Joaquin River flowing from the south. These rivers converge in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta before flowing to Suisun Bay and eventually to the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The Delta region comprises about 738,000 acres of land in six counties. Once dominated by islands, wetlands, and riparian forests, the Delta has been completely reconfigured for agriculture. Beginning in the 1850s, levees were constructed along the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, and many of their tributaries, to make the land usable for both human settlement and agriculture.

The Central Valley today has one of the nation’s most extensive levee systems, with approximately 1600 miles of federal levees and an equal length of nonfederal levees. The Delta region includes approximately 1100 miles of levees, of which 385 levee miles are incorporated into federal flood control projects, mostly along the main-stem Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. The 700-plus miles of nonfederal levees, many of which line not rivers but rather channels and prevent tidal inflows, generally do not meet the same design standards as the federal levees. Unlike river levees, which experience only periodic water loading during floods, many Delta levees have constant water loading. The aging Delta levee system is fragile and undergoing failure.

There have been many Delta levee breaches, and there is great concern about multiple levee failures in the event of an earthquake or large storm. The City of Sacramento, now a major urban area with a population of approximately 500,000, is at substantial risk for a catastrophic flood event

Hydropower Infrastructure Status

The Corps has the most projects. It operates 75 power plants with a total rated capacity of 20,500 megawatts (MW). In addition, there are another 90 nonfederal hydropower plants located at Corps dams with a total capacity of 2,300 MW.

As in its other mission areas, the Corps hydropower facilities are facing the challenges of an aging infrastructure and limited access to sources of revenue for adequate maintenance and repair.

Through its 75 hydropower plants and installed generation capacity of 20,500 megawatts (MW), the Corps owns and operates approximately one-fourth of the nation’s hydropower capacity. Most of its generating capacity is in the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS), with much of the remaining capacity in its Missouri River dams.

Average annual energy generation from Corps projects is approximately 70 billion kWh (worth approximately $5 billion at current wholesale prices for power), and annual revenue to the U.S. Treasury from Corps hydropower sales is in the range $2 billion to $3 billion per year. This represents over half the size of the entire Corps’ annual appropriation. As of 2010, the median age of all Corps hydropower projects was 47 years, and 90% of the projects were 34 years old or older. Given the ages of the facilities, OMR needs and failure rates are increasing, along with associated decreases in performance. As an example, total hours of forced outages across all Corps hydropower projects have been increasing steadily since at least 1999 (Figure 3-7).

In an era of heightened interest in energy policies and sources, electricity generation from Corps hydropower projects has been decreasing steadily as a result of insufficient equipment maintenance and rehabilitation. Total electric power generation from Corps hydropower projects decreased from 73.6 TWh in 2000 to 61.7 TWh in 2008, a decrease of 16%. At some Corps hydro power projects, none of the original equipment has been replaced since the facilities were constructed 30 or more years ago. Annual budgets for repairs and upgrades of most of the Corps hydropower equipment have been inadequate for a long time. This has resulted in degraded infra-structure and less efficient operation.

Although there is much interest in increasing domestic hydropower production, there are challenges confronting hydropower production beyond just finding the resources to replace, rehabilitate, and upgrade equipment. The fate of hydropower is entwined with the opposition to large dams based on economic, social, and environmental factors. Dams change river flows and the fish runs that depend on them, alter water chemistry, change riverine landscapes, and inundate large areas that can include scenic canyons and valleys. There is growing interest in dam removal in the United States, which could affect some Corps hydropower projects in the future, although likely not the largest projects. In addition, climate change adds concerns about reliability and predictability of hydropower development. Hydropower production also faces increasing competition for use of the water and for reservoir storage space. Many Corps dams and reservoirs are part of multiple-purpose projects, so that hydropower must compete with other uses such as flood protection, irrigation, water supply, efforts to protect fish, and efforts to restore aquatic ecosystems.

In order to realize the full potential for installed hydropower generation capacity at Corps projects, new approaches to funding OMR for hydropower must be developed and made possible through legislation. As noted in Sale (2010), PMAs are required by law to sell federal hydropower at rates that usually are significantly below market rates. These sales occur under long-term contracts that cannot easily be changed. The primary customers and beneficiaries of this power pressure the federal power producers to keep operation and maintenance costs as low as possible so as to keep power rates low.

Much of the existing water resources infrastructure of the Corps of Engineers, which is primarily in the mission areas of navigation, flood risk management and hydropower production, is quite aged and has not been adequately maintained. Funding needs for the repair and rehabilitation of this infrastructure are substantial, and it is clear from the long-term trend of declining funding from Congress for new construction and rehabilitation that new infusions of funding will not be available in the short term. Parts of the infrastructure are failing, and parts are being taken out of service because of lack of funding. Corps of Engineers infrastructure has different OMR needs, ranging from lock repair, dam safety, levee monitoring and maintenance, port deepening, and hydropower facility maintenance and upgrades.

Inland Navigation

The inland navigation system presents an especially formidable challenge and a set of difficult choices. There are stark realities and limited options, including:

  • Funding from Congress for project construction and rehabilitation has been declining steadily.
  • Lockage fees on users/direct beneficiaries could be implemented. These are resisted by users and others.
  • Parts of the system could be decommissioned or divested and the extent of the system decreased.
  • The status quo is a likely future path, but it will entail continued deterioration of the system and eventual, significant disruptions in service. It also implies that the system will be modified by deterioration, rather than by plan.

The national water infrastructure is largely “built out.” Compared to an earlier era, there are fewer opportunities and only a limited number of undeveloped or appropriate sites for new water resources infrastructure. New water projects will be constructed in the future, but the nation’s water resources infrastructure needs increasingly are in the areas of existing project operations, maintenance, and rehabilitation. In some instances, full project replacement may be needed. As new construction has declined since 1980, so too has the Corps civil works budget and hence funds available for OMR.

Without insufficient funding to address its many OMR needs, Corps of Engineers water resources infrastructure is not being adequately maintained and rehabilitated. Its future state thus will depend on actions taken, or not taken, in the near future. There is no single, obvious path forward for alternative funding mechanisms that might be used to fully maintain and upgrade existing Corps infrastructure. The different parts of the Corps water resources infrastructure—inland navigation, flood risk management, hydropower, and ports and harbors—are governed by different laws and have different sources of revenue.


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