U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library
Parts of the Corps' waterway network, including Lock and Dam No. 25 on the Mississippi, are more than 50 years old.

A new National Research Council study says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is losing ground in maintaining and upgrading the agency's huge, aging water-resources infrastructure.

The Corps-sponsored report, released on Oct. 4, comes as there are stirrings in the Senate about a new, multiyear water-resources bill that would authorize Corps river locks and dams, harbor dredging and environmental projects as well as alter Corps policies. But the bill has not yet been introduced, and at this early stage, it's unclear whether the new study will help shape the legislation.

John Doyle, special counsel with law and lobbying firm Jones Walker LLP, says, "I saw the report being more as a reminder than as a pathfinder in terms of the role that it might play in prompting the federal government … to give more attention to this set of issues."

Jimmy Christianson, director of the Associated General Contractors federal and heavy construction division, says the report "pretty much articulates what AGC has been saying for many years now—that we continue not to meet our nation's water-resources infrastructure needs through adequate funding."

The study says the Corps faces an "unsustainable situation" in operating, maintaining and rehabilitating its sprawling civil-works system, which includes about 700 dams and 14,000 miles of levees. The report says the network "is wearing out faster than it is being replaced or rehabilitated," with many structures at or beyond their 50-year design lives.

David Dzombak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and chairman of the NRC committee that produced the report, 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 doesn't estimate how much money it would take to erase the maintenance shortfall, but a recent American Society of Civil Engineers report pegs the inland-waterways infrastructure funding gap at $6 billion by 2020.

The NRC report doesn't recommend how to fix the problem but lists options for addressing it. They include: increased federal aid; more revenue from system users; divesting parts of the system; nonstructural approaches, such as zoning restrictions in floodplains; and partnerships with the private sector or states and localities for operations and maintenance.

Eileen Fretz, director of flood management with American Rivers, says, "For years, we have continued on an unsustainable path of building project after project, and we can no longer afford to repair what we already built." She adds, "Business as usual is not the answer."