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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Bureau of Reclamation’s Aging Infrastructure

Charles V. Stern
Analyst in Natural Resources Policy

The Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) is responsible for the construction of most of the large irrigation and water resources infrastructure in the West. These water resource facilities are dispersed throughout 17 western states and have an original development cost of more than $21 billion. Most of Reclamation’s infrastructure has an average age of over 50 years. This aging infrastructure requires increased maintenance and replacement efforts and expenditures. Reclamation estimates that the total cost for upgrades at all of its facilities exceeds $3 billion.

Reclamation has a documented plan to assess the management needs of its portfolio of aging infrastructure. However, deferred maintenance needs are increasing, and water resource infrastructure management objectives require prioritization due in part to a finite budget. Reclamation’s work on deferred maintenance and replacement is complicated by the fact that it maintains only one-third of the infrastructure that it owns. The remaining two-thirds are owned by Reclamation but have been transferred to local entities (“transferred works”). This makes for a unique combination of deteriorating infrastructure, patchwork management responsibilities, and limited financing that inevitably leads to conflicts over project priorities. As Reclamation’s portfolio of infrastructure continues to age, these conflicts are likely to arise more often.

Some have argued for changes to the existing processes that address Reclamation’s aging infrastructure. To date, funds have been authorized and appropriated for a national program that focuses on a certain class of resources (dams). However, outside of this program, no national list of maintenance and upgrade priorities exists, and there are no major programmatic authorities for Reclamation to address these needs without repayment by users (which can make upgrades prohibitive in some cases). Recently, Congress has authorized a loan program to address aging infrastructure and has provided the Secretary of the Interior with the authority to advance federal funds and extend repayment periods for extraordinary maintenance projects. However, as a matter of policy, the Administration has generally refused to request funding for efforts that would primarily benefit nonfederal users. In the future, users are likely to continue to argue for more funding (particularly for transferred works), as well as for reforms to the overall process of documenting and selecting projects for improvements.

At issue for Congress is whether to require additional analysis on the status of Reclamation’s infrastructure needs. Additionally, Congress may consider whether Reclamation’s existing planning and funding mechanisms for aging infrastructure are adequate, or whether new or enhanced mechanisms for these maintenance needs are required.

This report describes Reclamation’s approach to managing aging infrastructure as well as that of two other agencies—the Army Corps of Engineers and the Natural Resources Conservation Service—involved with significant portfolios of dams and related infrastructure. It includes discussion of several alternative approaches to managing Reclamation’s aging infrastructure that have been enacted or proposed, and thus may be the subject of debate.

Date of Report: March 30, 2011
Number of Pages: 18
Order Number: RL34466
Price: $29.95

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