The Army Corps of Engineers is facing an “unsustainable situation” in maintaining its huge and aging water infrastructure, as current funding isn't keeping up with the needs, a new National Research Council study says.

The report, released on Oct. 4, says that the Corps' sprawling network of river locks and dams and other civil works “is wearing out faster than it is being replaced or rehabilitated.” The system includes about 700 dams, 14,000 miles of federal levees and other structures along and within 12,000 miles of river channels.

The NRC report adds that the estimated value of the Corps’ capital civil-works stock, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has dropped to $164 billion now, from $237 billion in the mid-1980s.

The study, written by a NRC committee, focuses on operations, maintenance and rehabilitation needs for the Corps’ existing civil works system, which includes many elements that have hit or surpassed their 50-year design lives.

The chair of the committee that wrote the report, David Dzombak, the Walter J. Blenko, Sr., professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, says, “It’s clear that from…the trends over the past three decades in funding that the [Corps’] existing large infrastructure cannot be adequately maintained.”

The report does not estimate how much money it would take to address the maintenance shortfall. But a recent American Society of Civil Engineers report says that the funding gap for inland waterways infrastructure will total about $6 billion by 2020.

Steve Stockton, the Corps' director of civil works, said in an statement emailed on Oct. 4 that the Corps had received the NRC study and is reviewing it. He added, "We very much appreciate the thorough and insightful work done by the NRC in putting together the report."

The panel’s report lists several options for dealing with the problem, including increased federal funds, gaining more revenue from various users of the facilities, divesting some elements of the system and seeking “partnerships” with the private sector or state and local government agencies to carry out operation and maintenance.

The committee also notes that the status quo is another option, but says that given the current inadequate funding levels, that would produce an “unsustainable situation.”