Modernizing the Nation’s Water Infrastructure
CRAIG COLLINS, AMERICA'S ENGINEERS
If you follow the elevation of the Mississippi River from year to year, the fall of 2022 might have given you whiplash:
• After the Mississippi River Basin endured a season of record precipitation, beginning in late 2018, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) launched a protracted effort to manage the river’s flood waters and protect communities across the entire valley –which drains a third of the continental United States and two Canadian provinces. For six months, the basin received up to twice its normal amount of rain; for much of the Midwest, it was the wettest six months ever recorded. The river was above flood stage for 226 consecutive days, the longest period in recorded history. For the first time since it was built in 1931, the Bonnet Carré Spillway in New Orleans’ St. Charles Parish was opened in back-to-back years – and USACE made history again in May 2019, when it opened the structure for the second time in the same year, to relieve pressure on the upstream levees and prevent flooding in southeast Louisiana.
Backed-up barges on a parched Mississippi River north of Vicksburg. At times, up to 2,000 barges and towboats waited to proceed at various chokepoints due to barge groundings and low water. USACE carried out emergency dredging operations to re-open the channel.
NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY IMAGE
• Two years later, a hot, dry summer lowered the Mississippi River to record levels in many areas – in mid-October, it was 11 feet below normal at the city of Memphis. Cargo barges were getting stuck on sandbars and forced to reduce their cargo, disrupting a critical shipping route from northern Minnesota to Louisiana – not to mention tributaries throughout the basin, such as the Missouri and Ohio rivers. The costs of shipping – by river, rail, and truck –skyrocketed. The Corps of Engineers launched emergency dredging operations at choke points along the river, where about 2,000 barges were backed up, waiting for a clear channel. On the Louisiana coast, the river was so low that Gulf of Mexico saltwater began creeping upstream, leading Plaquemines Parish to issue a drinking water advisory. USACE responded by beginning construction of a 1,500-foot-wide underwater levee, or “sill,” near the town of Myrtle Grove, to prevent the denser saltwater from pushing upriver.
Tower Rock, a 400 million-year-old limestone formation normally lying in the middle of the Misssissippi River in Perry County, Missouri, is now accessible by foot due to historically low water levels. Note the people surrounding the rock formation, which has become a popular tourist destination.
The Mississippi is one of the world’s most valuable waterways. More than 90% of the nation’s agricultural exports are produced in the Mississippi River Basin, and, according to the National Park Service, nearly 80% of the world’s feed grain and soybean exports. More than 500 million tons of freight, valued at $130 billion, travels down the river every year. In a normal year, USACE estimates that use of the Mississippi as a waterway saves $12.5 billion in transportation costs.
Onlookers observe high floodwaters at the Bonnet Carré spillway, May 9, 2011.
U.S. COAST GUARD PHOTO
At least two of the last four years have been far from normal on the Mississippi – one of the many variables USACE is weighing as it begins to decide how it will execute a historic program of modernizing the nation’s water infrastructure.
The IIJA and the Value – and Vulnerability – of Water Resources
Protecting the commercial supply chain on one of the world’s most extensive waterway systems – nearly half of all consumer goods pass through harbors maintained by USACE, and the Corps of Engineers is constantly collecting, analyzing, and sharing critical data on the use and condition of these ports and waterways – is just one of the ways in which USACE contributes to the nation’s safety, security, and economic prosperity. Through its management of the nation’s water resources, it also fulfills several other missions: flood risk protection (from 2010 to 2019, its projects prevented an annual average of $138 billion in flood damages), coastal storm damage reduction, hydropower, recreation, water supply, and more.
USACE’s Nashville District and contractor Johnson Brothers place the final concrete shell on the riverbed of the Tennessee River Feb. 2, 2020, below Kentucky Lock in Grand Rivers, Kentucky. It was the 10th concrete shell that is part of the permanent downstream lock wall and will double as part of a coffer dam for the Kentucky Lock Addition Project.
USACE PHOTO BY LEON ROBERTS
In November 2021, when President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law) into law, it was the latest expansion of a Civil Works portfolio that has more than doubled over the last decade. Several supplemental laws have authorized USACE, sometimes in the wake of severe storms and other natural disasters, to undertake short-term repairs of water infrastructure, along with investing in the long-term resilience of impacted projects.
Overnight, the IIJA added the equivalent of multiple years of USACE appropriations, including:
• $11.6 billion in construction funding;
• $ 4 billion for operations and maintenance – including the repair of disaster-caused damages; and
• $ 808 million specifically for projects on the Mississippi River and tributaries.
Trade West Inc., of Nevada removes the last rock from the New Lock at the Soo upstream channel deepening project in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
PHOTO BY CARRIE FOX
The law required the Corps of Engineers to devise plans for spending this new funding, and it responded with plans that offered a glimpse of its strategy for modernizing the nation’s multi-use water infrastructure in an era of unprecedented volatility and uncertainty. So far, USACE has announced a multibillion-dollar investment in more than 300 new waterway projects with IIJA funding – projects that will:
STRENGTHEN PORTS, WATERWAYS, AND DOMESTIC SUPPLY CHAINS – moving more goods faster, at the nation’s fastest-growing ports; and reducing congestion on inland waterways. Investments include:
• More than $1 billion for the third phase of construction at the New Lock at the Soo, connecting Lake Huron and Lake Superior at Sault St. Marie, Michigan;
• $72 million to widen and deepen the federal navigation channel at Norfolk Harbor, Virginia;
• $ 465 million to complete the Kentucky Lock and Dam Project on the Tennessee River near Gilbertsville, Kentucky – where the incomplete lock now creates one of the longest shipping delays in the country, hindering the passage of more than $5 billion in commodities that flow through the lock every year;
• $77 million toward the construction of new lock chambers at the Emsworth Locks and Dams, on the upper Ohio River just downstream of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and
• $92.6 million toward upgrading the locks of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS), which accommodates 12 million tons of agricultural commerce annually and provides flood control for river communities in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
INCREASE CLIMATE RESILIENCE, including the reduction of coastal and inland flood risk, and the restoration of aquatic ecosystems. Investments include:
• more than $1 billion to the South Florida (Everglades) Ecosystem Restoration Plan;
• $350 million to Adams and Denver counties, Colorado, for flood risk reduction and ecosystem restoration along 6.5 miles of the Platte River’s riparian habitat;
• $3 8 million to mitigate the impacts of dam projects on the runs of anadromous fish species – salmon and steelhead – in the Columbia River Basin, including new and improved fishways and bypasses, habitat restoration, juvenile fish transportation, culvert removal, new and expanded hatcheries, research, and more;
• $77 million for the Mississippi Coast Improvements Program (MSCIP), to restore barrier islands and increase resilience to future storm events, prevent saltwater intrusion and shoreline erosion, and preserve fish and wildlife habitat;
• $150 million for floodwalls, storm surge barriers, levees, pump stations, and non-structural measures to reduce threats of storm surge and sea level rise to the city of Norfolk, Virginia;
• $221 million for a comprehensive flood damage reduction plan for the Pearl River in Jackson, Mississippi; and
• $60.6 million to assist with flood damage reduction in the storm-ravaged areas of Rio Guayanilla, one of Puerto Rico’s most flood-prone areas.
ADVANCE ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE, in line with the goal of the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative: To confer 40% of the overall benefits of federal investments on communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution. Investments include:
• $67 million to reduce flood risk communities along California’s Pajaro River and in surrounding agricultural lands, where flooding has caused loss of life and economic harm;
• $2.2 million for the design of a system to restore and protect 958 acres of riparian habitat in New Mexico’s Española Valley, a critical stretch of the Rio Grande, and a region of cultural importance to indigenous communities; and
• $115 million to the Southwest Coastal Louisiana Hurricane Protection Project, to reduce storm surge risk in the low-lying communities of Cameron, Calcasieu, and Vermilion parishes, which are identified as disadvantaged and have suffered greatly from the impacts of climate change.
USACE’s Lock and Dam 15, on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS). The Corps of Engineers’ Tulsa District operates and maintains five locks and dams on its 137-mile portion of the MKARNS.
U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS PHOTO BY PRESTON CHASTEEN
In addition to the IIJA, USACE was authorized to invest $5.7 billion in supplemental funds from disaster relief legislation in 2022, including:
• $100 million for studies of proposed projects in the four states that suffered the most damage from Hurricane Ida in 2021: Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania;
• $3 billion for the construction of qualifying flood and storm damage reduction projects; and
• $868 million for the rehabilitation and repair of projects along the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
What "Modern" Means
David Pittman, Ph.D., director of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), points out, USACE responsible for executing this ambitious modernization effort is fundamentally the same Corps of Engineers that existed five years ago, when its budget was less than half its current level. “Our workforce has remained essentially the same,” he said. USACE will rely heavily on its partners, said Pittman – “but also, the need to innovate is increasing. Our chief of engineers is telling us we can’t keep doing things in the same old ways.”
Nobody agrees with this more strongly than Edward E. Belk, USACE’s director of Civil Works. To execute this big workload, Belk said, the Corps of Engineers has implemented several initiatives aimed at accelerating project delivery. One initiative is aimed at improving the way USACE monitors its performance using data analytics. By relying on public-private partnerships (P3) as an alternative project delivery method, USACE has so far saved about 20 years of project time and $450 million in federal dollars. “The P3 program represents a new era in community-based infrastructure investment,” said Belk, “as we look beyond traditional delivery methods.”
Belk has plans for USACE’s people, too, amid such sweeping change: “We are at a critical moment in our history with a once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s civil works infrastructure,” he said. “We need our diverse, talented, and agile workforce to ensure we can execute this historic workload.” USACE has launched an aggressive recruitment effort aimed at securing the talent necessary to deliver these large, technically complex programs. “Multi-functional teams and partnerships are key to safely delivering quality projects on time and within budget,” said Belk. “A diverse world-class workforce is absolutely essential if we are to meet the needs of our nation.”
In USACE’s plans to invest these large funding infusions, there is a recognition that more isn’t necessarily better – that climate change, social and economic inequality, and other variables demand much wisdom in the allocation of often scarce resources. In coastal regions, where sea level rise has made infrastructure more subject to corrosion from saltwater intrusion, for example, traditional surface coatings simply aren’t as durable as they once were. The military alone spends more than $20 billion annually fighting corrosion. USACE’s Paint Technology Center of Expertise, at its Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL), was initially established primarily to research how to prevent corrosion at its locks and dams, but its work has since expanded to include coatings that will help reduce energy consumption at facilities – to the point of perhaps even harvesting energy with embedded solar cells. It’s a simple idea – how a project is coated can affect its useful lifetime; and its consumption of energy – with far-reaching implications.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel discuss the beginnings of the programmatic execution of the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) contract 1 in 2021. The CEPP will identify and plan projects on land already in public ownership to allow more water to be directed south to the central Everglades, Everglades National Park, and Florida Bay.
U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS PHOTO BY BRIGIDA I. SANCHEZ
A modern water infrastructure will be one whose design, construction, and operation will minimize demands on, and optimize the use of, resources that – as the last five years on the Mississippi have shown – are more prone to cycling rapidly between shortage and abundance. A major area of study for USACE researchers is Forecast-Informed Reservoir Operation, or FIRO. Pittman explains FIRO in this way: “Reservoirs on rivers are typically operated with something called water control manuals,” he said, “which rely on data sets and tables, elevation probability curves, and other tools, to guide the operator.”
In the western United States, these manuals don’t typically consider the impacts of atmospheric rivers – narrow bands of concentrated moisture, thousands of miles long and hundreds of miles wide, that dump heavy rainfall and are becoming more intense with climate change. Atmospheric rivers cause most of the economic losses associated with flooding in the West.
“It’s a balancing act,” said Pittman. “If you let too much water out of the reservoir, it drops the lake level to the point where maybe you can’t do recreation, or you’ve decreased your water supply. You might flood downstream if you let too much water out at once. On the flip side, if you don’t let enough water out, and then an atmospheric river hits, you’re going to flood upstream, right? You might overtop the dam. So, it’s a delicate balance, to meet all the requirements of that reservoir.”
Atmospheric rivers’ intense bursts of rain account for 25% to 50% of annual precipitation in some regions of the West, but because of the flood risk, these bursts haven’t been harnessed to replenish water supply.
ERDC researchers are working with scientists at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute at the University of California San Diego to develop FIRO – not only to reduce flood risks, but also to optimize the retention and delivery of water to communities. FIRO uses data from watershed monitoring, and weather and hydrologic forecasting methods drawn specifically from the study of atmospheric rivers, to help water managers selectively retain or release water from reservoirs.
A water release at Lake Mendocino, the pilot reservoir for the Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations effort.
PHOTO BY ERDC PAO
A 2021 pilot project at California’s Prado Reservoir, which supplies the Santa Ana River and the groundwater basin that supplies 2.5 million residents of Orange County, revealed that a more efficient pattern of releases using FIRO could capture an additional 4,000 acre-feet annually, enough to supply 60,000 additional residents. It’s a discovery of enormous promise: Without building anything new, or spending more dollars, USACE and its partners have figured out how to increase water supplies to communities facing greater uncertainty.
Building capacity and resilience among these communities has long been an emphasis of USACE’s approach to how the nation makes use of its water infrastructure, said Will Veatch, acting lead for USACE’s Climate Preparedness and Resilience Community of Practice – an approach that will become more important amid increasing demand for the nation’s water resources. “We’re trying to be more intentional about understanding and increasing our partners’ adaptive capacities,” he said. “We’re trying to come up with ways to use our capacity-building programs, like the National Flood Risk Management Program, the Tribal Partnership Program, planning assistance to states, and Silver Jackets, and trying to find out how much capacity these communities have. Some of them may have capacities we don’t even know about.”
Veatch believes greater knowledge of the capacities – and vulnerabilities – of communities will be a key factor in guiding how USACE directs its resources to modernize the nation’s water infrastructure. “We want to make sure, as we go forward together and make a more adaptable, resilient future,” he said, “that it’s not just the high-rent districts that get all the benefits because they’ve got the expensive structures at risk – that there’s a lot that can be done, and needs to be done, across the spectrum to ensure an equitable future.”