US Army Corps of Engineers
Little Rock District

Commanders Column – Hydropower in the 21st Century

The US Army Corps of Engineers plays a vital role in the our country’s national security plans by delivering warfighter support, providing vital civil works solutions, reducing disaster risks, and preparing our people to meet the needs of an ever-changing world. Clean, renewable energy generated at our dams is a key piece of those national security plans. This has been true for several decades and will remain true for the foreseeable future.

A major piece of the renewable energy puzzle is hydro power generated in Corps owned and operated dams on multi-use lakes, reservoirs and navigation channels. We operate and maintain 24 percent of the Nation’s hydro power capacity which is no small feat given the fact that many of our dams were designed and built 40-50 years ago.

Hydropower does not exist in a vacuum.  It relies upon a supply of water that has many other demands for its use.  Not only municipal and industrial uses which take water out of the reservoirs, but also recreational and environmental concerns demand specific uses of the water that drives the turbines.  In the world of energy production, not only is hydropower “green” but it is also one of the few sources of electricity that can be easily turned on and off to meet rapidly fluctuating demands.  The ability to provide “peak power” at higher market rates only adds to the challenge of balancing the needs of all users of a reservoir or lake.  While our partner agency, Southwestern Power Administration, takes the burden of marketing our hydropower produced electricity, but USACE remains firmly responsible for balancing all authorized purposes of a hydropower-equipped dam along.

We cannot perform our mission of those authorized purposes without our infrastructure and the personnel to man it.  It may seem that budget constraints pit personnel needs against maintenance requirements.  Reality is that leaders must make difficult decisions and balance the needs of both.  With future budgets likely to be trimmed and stretched, we will have limited resources available to secure and oversee the major projects at our hydropower facilities. This uncertain future requires careful planning and near flawless execution to maximize our effectiveness.  One bright spot is that SWPA’s customers realize the need to recapitalize the infrastructure to sustain it into the future as it affects their ability to do business.  To that end, the SWPA Customers have provided additional funding for the purposes of repairs and major rehabilitation of hydropower projects.  While these funds are able to accomplish great things, we need to recognize that they are not limitless. The game remains the same: to ensure the maximum effectiveness of both Federal budget and customer-provided funds.

Within the District Budget planning starts with periodic inspections.  Identifying the critical maintenance issues is the necessary precursor to building budget work packages.  We look at issues identified through our periodic inspections and constantly update those issues identified and must-fixes. At every Project Review Board meeting, the District leadership reviews project schedules and progress, maintenance backlogs, and ensures our strategy for getting the most effect out of our limited resources.   We can’t do everything, so prioritization is vital to achieving our mission to the public and taking care of our employees.  The final aspect of managing our maintenance workload falls to our workforce on the frontlines performing and overseeing the work day in and day out. Without a committed team of Corps professionals at every level, the execution aspect of our operation would render the best-laid plans ineffective or worse lead to complete failure.

We are charged by the people of this great Nation to create and manage projects that protect people and property while generating renewable energy, among many additional uses. This is not a charge I or the men and women of the Little Rock District take lightly. We will continue to balance all the competing needs. We will meet our commitments. We will not fail. But our success requires dedication, perseverance, and excellence at every level.

Col. Courtney W. Paul