Water resource infrastructure not adequately funded, report says

Wednesday - 10/31/2012, 12:04pm EDT

David Dzombak, chairman, National Research Council

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As the East Coast slowly begins to dry out after Hurricane Sandy, some academics are warning that floods may become the norm unless the federal government makes major changes.

The National Research Council has published a report calling on the Army Corps of Engineers to change the way it manages 14,000 miles of levees, 700 dams and many more water structures. It calls on Congress and the White House to act too.

"We have built over the past 100 years or more a very large water resources infrastructure," said David Dzombak, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon who chaired the National Research Council committee that wrote the report. "We have not provided the funds to maintain it adequately."

He told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Wednesday that this is not a problem that appeared overnight.

Prof. David Dzombak, National Research Council committee chairman

"That's not just within the past year, the past four years or the past decade, but it's a multi-decade trend here where we have been not providing enough funds to maintain the large infrastructure that we have accumulated over time."

The committee looked broadly at the water infrastructure the Army Corps of Engineering is responsible for, including flood mitigation and inland navigation infrastructure as well as ports, harbors and hydropower generation.

The surge of water and wind Sandy created was a severe test of the infrastructure along the East Coast.

"In this case, there was some Corps infrastructure involved, but a lot of it was state, local and even private infrastructure," Dzombak said. "I think a lesson to take away here is that there's a limited amount that hard infrastructure can do to protect the coastlines against that kind of loading."

The committee's report focused on the need for more "nonstructural" approaches to flood mitigation. "That means zoning and the development decisions that we make for limitations on that to reduce flood risk," he said. "A lot of the infrastructure that was damaged over the past couple of days has been in very high risk areas. We don't experience storms like Sandy on a yearly or even decadal frequency, but the entire East Coast and the Gulf Coast is subject to hurricane loadings like that and we've developed an awful lot that's in harm's way."

Within the context of its annual allocation for operation, maintenance and rehabilitation, the Corps does a pretty good job of allocating available funds and prioritizing among those funds, Dzombak said.

"But, the need for stepping back and looking at the entire infrastructure is at a higher level and there are policy decisions to be made there about what is high priority, how much we want to invest and … how much infrastructure we want to maintain," he said. "Those are all policy decisions that fall in the domain of Congress and the Executive Branch."