In his joint address to Congress, U.S. President Donald Trump touted a $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan as a means to stimulate the economy while constructing, if not rebuilding outright, crucial projects around the country. Trump later met with U.S. business leaders on March 8 seeking support from the private sector for the plan. It is key to implementing the administration’s infrastructure goals, primarily as a way to keep costs revenue neutral, so the federal government does not have to increase spending. Specifically, some locks and dams are on the president’s priority list. A handful of projects, however, is only a drop in the bucket of aging, in some cases cracking, U.S. water systems.
Officials have been asked to identify new and existing projects that need to be completed in general. The National Governors Association has already presented a list of more than 400 “shovel ready” projects. While details remain scarce, it appears the strategy is to have the private sector fund the majority of any planned projects, using federal funds only when necessary. But relying on the private sector will inevitably skew the infrastructure initiative toward projects that have a better potential for financial returns, such as ports, airports and toll roads.
Meanwhile, there are more than 80,000 dams in the United States, with an average age of 52 years.
The suburban sprawl and growing populations have also put more people downstream of dams that once only served agricultural land, increasing the risk to human life should one fail. California, Colorado, the Northeast and the Rust Belt are just some of the areas where the most high-risk dams and the oldest dams overlap. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that more than 4,000 of these dams are in need of repairs, costing an estimated $21 billion. With the Trump administration set on having the private sector lead construction efforts, there likely won’t be the same interest, if any, in investing in many of these types of projects, making it more difficult to fund dam and other water infrastructure.
All of this is happening just a month after a near collapse of the Oroville Dam in northern California. Heavy rains throughout the winter have taken much of the state out of severe drought, but have also stretched some reservoirs to capacity. At the Oroville Dam, failure of the main spillway required the use of an emergency earthen spillway, which quickly began eroding.
While disaster was avoided this time, it illustrates the urgent need for investment in the nation’s dilapidated water systems — an area where interest from private investors can be hard to come by.