On Topic: Assistant secretary of Army explains how water engineering has evolved

A member of The Bee’s editorial board briefly met Jo-Ellen Darcy, the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, last week after she was dropped off atop Folsom Dam by a Black Hawk helicopter with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials. They joined number of local stakeholders and other visitors for a tour of the $900 million auxiliary spillway project, which is underway and expected to be completed in late 2017. The spillway will allow the dam to be more flexible with water releases, improving flood protection in the Sacramento region.

Is this part of a tour of California?

I’m out in California for a conference that the United States is hosting, an international conference on navigation. While I’m out here I wanted to see some of our projects, and this was one of them. We were down in Hamilton City before this. Tomorrow, we’re going to see some projects in San Francisco – the San Francisco shoreline and Francisquito Creek.

Not the levees in Natomas?

We flew over. We were going to go to that one but, logistically, it just didn’t work out. But that’s another we’ve been working on for a long time.

Whats the state of our nation’s water infrastructure?

Well, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, it’s getting a D-plus these days. ... I think that’s probably accurate. The state of our water infrastructure is old. Most of what we have was designed and built more than 50 years ago. So we’ve got a lot of aging infrastructure that we need to take a look at as far as what we can do to rehabilitate it – if we need to replace it or if we need it any longer.

What is in the worst shape?

It depends. Some of the locks ... in the inland waterways, not only because they’re old but because they’re used all the time. Mostly we’ve had in the past 24/7 lock operations in the inland waterways as well as in the Mississippi and other major tributaries.

Do we need another public works investment like we had in the 1930s?

We need public works investment. I’m not sure it’s the same thing (as the New Deal projects). That was building a lot of this infrastructure to begin with. Our challenge now is to keep it in the operating shape that we need for the future. It’s not necessarily new construction. Some of it is, because we’ve learned a lot in 50 years and in improvements and efficiencies that we can learn from, as far as whether we rebuild the way it was built initially or whether there’s improvements we can make.

What’s the significance of the reconstruction project for the L.A. River in terms of de-concretizing rivers in general?

That whole system was built for flood control and has been efficient and effective, but some of the concrete separating the city from the river is what this system restoration project is looking at… It will continue to provide flood control for the city, but it will also be able to reconnect the community as well as the ecosystem and the habitat back to L.A.

It seems like the exact opposite of what the Army Corps was doing 100 years ago. Has the thinking in water engineering evolved?

It has evolved, and we’ve also learned a lot. The Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t just go out and build things. We build things when we’re directed to by the Congress, and therefore the people who want the flood protection. That was what the flood protection of the day was, concrete. We’ve been learning a lot since then, we’ve learned that wetlands are a great way to provide protection and at the same time have habitat. ... What we’ve learned in the Everglades – that’s the largest ecosystem-restoration project in the world – and what we’ve learned was when we build the channels to provide flood protection for Lake Okeechobee we’re putting water out to tide and we were in that instance draining the Everglades. Now, 50 years later, we’ve learned that wasn’t the best way.

Why are dams so expensive?

Just take a look at this (she gestures to the construction site). Look at all of the concrete, all of the rebar, getting it here. Those gates that are going to be put in here were fabricated in Portland and they had to drive them down here on couple different highway stretches – all of that and the transportation costs. Those cranes right there? Those aren’t cheap. And, what, 120 people here today working on this?