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Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2011. National Water Resources Challenges Facing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13136.
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Summary

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) is responsible for planning, construction, operations, and maintenance of much of the nation’s water resources infrastructure. This infrastructure includes flood control levees, multi-purpose dams, locks, navigation channels, port and harbor facilities, and beach protection infrastructure. The Corps of Engineers also regulates the dredging and filling of wetlands subject to federal jurisdictions. Along with its programs for flood damage reduction and support of commercial navigation, ecosystem restoration was added as a primary Corps mission area in 1996.

The National Research Council (NRC) Committee on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Water Resources Science, Engineering, and Planning was convened by the NRC at the request of the Corps of Engineers to provide independent advice to the Corps on an array of strategic and planning issues (the committee’s full statement of task is presented in Box 1; see Appendix C for a listing of and biographical information on committee members). This activity initially will extend over 5 years, during which the committee will issue a report each year. This is the committee’s first report.

This report presents several findings, but no recommendations, to the Corps of Engineers based on initial investigations and discussions with Corps leadership. It is intended to serve as a survey of the key water resources challenges facing the Corps, the limits of what might be expected today from the Corps, and future prospects for the agency. The audience for the report includes not only the Corps of Engineers, but also

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2011. National Water Resources Challenges Facing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13136.
×

the U.S. Congress, the administration, Corps project co-sponsors, and the many other entities that are affected by Corps projects and interact with the agency. The report will serve as a foundational document to be referenced in the committee’s future reports.

The report’s findings are as follows:

In an earlier era of national water development, Corps of Engineers civil works projects focused on construction of dams, levees, navigation channels, and other infrastructure. Over time, Congress has greatly broadened the Corps’ work program and responsibilities. Future Corps water resources activities will be less dedicated to construction of major new civil works, and more heavily focused 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 ecosystem restoration and ecological services in heavily altered riparian and aquatic ecosystems.

There has been a declining level of investment in the civil works infrastructure owned and operated by the Corps of Engineers. Deferred costs for maintaining the nation’s infrastructure for flood and hurricane protection, and for commercial navigation, are considerable.

Despite decreasing emphasis on new construction, Congress and the nation will continue to rely upon the Corps for emergency response activities and for periodic upgrades to civil works infrastructure.

Despite declining investment levels and numbers of Corps personnel, the nation expects the Corps to provide a number of services, including flood risk management, water-based recreation, commercial navigation, ecosystem restoration, hydropower production, water supply, and coastal and beach protection. This situation leads to expectations that the Corps of Engineers and its civil works construction program cannot meet consistently.

The backlog of authorized federal water resources projects that have not yet received appropriations, or which have begun some level of planning or construction and await additional funds for completion, is considerable. There is also a considerable backlog of existing water project and infrastructure maintenance. The collective backlog of unfinished work leads to projects being delayed, conducted in a stop-start manner, and to overall inefficient project delivery.

The modern context for water resources management involves smaller budgets, cost sharing, an expanded range of objectives, and inclusion of more public and private stakeholders in management decisions. Two important implications of these conditions are (1) given current budget realities, the nation may have to consider more flexible,

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2011. National Water Resources Challenges Facing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13136.
×

innovative, and lower cost solutions to achieving water-related objectives, and (2) the Corps of Engineers will by necessity work in settings with more collaboration and public and private partnerships than in the past.

The Corps of Engineers is increasingly challenged to provide a wide variety of water project benefits, some of which often are not consistent and compatible with one another. Some of these challenges relate to inconsistencies in authorizing legislation and related regulations, while some relate to the natural limits of hydrologic and ecologic systems. As a result of these factors, the Corps increasingly finds itself involved in controversies over shared water resources that are beyond the agency’s mandates and capacities to fully resolve.

The Corps of Engineers reflects a national water planning paradox: national water resources demands are increasing and becoming more complex, while at the same time, national investments in water infrastructure exhibit a declining trend. Moreover, in some parts of the nation there are additional water management objectives relevant to Corps project operations, such as water quality goals, in which the agency may be requested to expand its involvement.

The nation’s water planning needs and priorities promise to become even more contentious, complex, and harder to anticipate, in the future. As this report describes, the nature of water planning and the typical water resources project have shifted over the past 50 years. Examples of topics of priority and concern across the United States today are improved flood risk management, efficient water infrastructure planning and investments, navigation infrastructure, water-based recreation, hydropower generation, water supply, ecosystem restoration and endangered species protection, water quality, and understanding and managing water-related risks associated with hydrologic nonstationarity. The Corps of Engineers’ authorities, levels of staffing, and resources have gone through changes over the years. At the same time, the Corps of Engineers retains a clear leadership role in many of the nation’s major river and aquatic systems, and there will be a continued need for an innovative and responsive Corps of Engineers to lead efforts in addressing national water planning challenges.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2011. National Water Resources Challenges Facing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13136.
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Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2011. National Water Resources Challenges Facing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13136.
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Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2011. National Water Resources Challenges Facing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13136.
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Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2011. National Water Resources Challenges Facing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13136.
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Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2011. National Water Resources Challenges Facing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13136.
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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) is responsible for construction, operations, and maintenance of much of the nation's water resources infrastructure. This infrastructure includes flood control levees, multi-purpose dams, locks, navigation channels, port and harbor facilities, and beach protection infrastructure. The Corps of Engineers also regulates the dredging and filling of wetlands subject to federal jurisdictions. Along with its programs for flood damage reduction and support of commercial navigation, ecosystem restoration was added as a primary Corps mission area in 1996.

The National Research Council (NRC) Committee on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Water Resources Science, Engineering, and Planning was convened by the NRC at the request of the Corps of Engineers to provide independent advice to the Corps on an array of strategic and planning issues. National Water Resources Challenges Facing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers surveys the key water resources challenges facing the Corps, the limits of what might be expected today from the Corps, and future prospects for the agency. This report presents several findings, but no recommendations, to the Corps of Engineers based on initial investigations and discussions with Corps leadership.

National Water Resources Challenges Facing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can serve as a foundational resource for the Corps of Engineers, U.S. Congress, federal agencies, and Corps project co-sponsors, among others.

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