By 1st Lt. Colin J. Westlake, P.E., USA  

When I was a student at Georgia Southern University, a professor said to me the number one rule of Civil Engineering is that “water must go somewhere.”

Many years before, groups of American engineers, fully aware of that natural inevitability, began harnessing energy generated by rivers flowing across the country. Using drive, determination and slide rules, those engineers were able to channel rivers like the Columbia, Colorado and Savannah to help meet the country’s power and water needs.

Today, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) oversees more than 700 dams around the nation. As sure as the sun will rise, the hydrologic cycle will provide those dams with water. However, after years of production, a large percentage of these dams have surpassed their equipment’s expected service life. Older equipment offers less reliability and an increasing need for more maintenance, repairs and replacements. Time and again, USACE has had to adapt and overcome challenges to continue its mission by more closely managing lifecycles of major infrastructure using an Asset Management (AM) System.

Concepts that have evolved into the most current AM practices are not new. For years, individuals, governments and corporations have made purchasing decisions that compare replacement cost to expected service life, based upon a maintenance plan. Duct tape has made an industry out of quick fixes to extend a product’s life. We expect our cars to last as long as necessary. Hopefully, all of us change the oil in our cars and have a little rainy day money set aside to fix an unexpected breakdown. The recent evolution of AM systems, though, includes a calculated approach to decisions to maximize value. An organization’s AM plan can be as large or as small as they want it to be. For example, it can include training to change employees’ philosophy on asset decisions; or it can include creation of a new business section responsible for overseeing multiple parts/assets of an industry. USACE has defined AM as a disciplined corporate approach for management of its asset portfolio. This requires integration of and collaboration with all of the agency’s organizations and programs, and their respective activities and contributions.

One commonly accepted view of AM is that it is a decision-making process concerning the life of an asset. The eight phases of the process are: strategize; plan; evaluate/design; create and procure; operate; maintain; modify; and dispose.

The phases are continuous, with an evolving strategy and plan for the eventual disposal of an old asset, and creation of a new item or replacement. The process is similar to a growing family upgrading a small, older car to a new, large SUV offering more room, reliability and power to pull a trailer on vacation. Companies make decisions on whether to make or buy something; to rent or own; to invest in current assets or upgrade to new assets’ to contract or do it in-house. These decisions should be planned to fit into an overall mission. As AM continues to evolve, it is being leveraged to improve practices regarding system information, materials, risk, reliability, replacement, real estate and information technology.



While countries like Brazil and China are continuing to build large-capacity hydropower dams, America’s peak in dam construction was 50 years ago. USACE is generally beyond planning and design stages of constructing large hydropower plants. This places much of the organization’s hydropower focus on operation, maintenance and modification phases of AM. USACE has always maintained a high standard in maintenance practices—a business strategy that has seen many large hydropower assets function reliably well beyond designed life expectancy. This led to a funding focus on routine operations and maintenance rather than non-routine repair and replacement.

As equipment continues to age, and government budgets tighten, USACE has implemented a Maintenance Management Improvement Plan (MMIP) as a national approach to planning, executing and documenting maintenance. The evolving MMIP program is designed to better align maintenance activities with lifecycle AM principles. It consists of five steps: inventory; condition assessment; determination of resources needed; determination of resources available; and managing that gap.

The MMIP motto, “The right work, at the right time, for the right equipment,” focuses on prioritizing maintenance resources based on mission criticality, communicating consequences of deferring maintenance, and improving performance and efficiency of maintenance efforts. Using this logic, a driver at a gas station filling up would clean the windshield first, then clean out trash if time allows. One of USACE’s tools to implement the MMIP program is the Facilities and Equipment Maintenance System infrastructure database. The Facilities and Equipment Maintenance System is based on IBM Maximo, an off-the-shelf, industry-proven maintenance management software program. This software allows projects to inventory assets into hierarchies for tracking maintenance, and to easily sort and manage other types of data to support maintenance.

Together, the AM System and the MMIP program are being utilized to improve on the use of conditional assessments of assets to monitor change in performance, predict failure, and prioritize maintenance.

At a dam, non-routine work must be prioritized and scheduled. When work such as replacing the stator winding in a generator arises, specialized equipment and a large increase in temporary labor are required.

Determining resources needed or available, and managing the gap between them, quantifies the necessity for funding, hiring workers and requesting equipment. At a dam, non-routine work must be prioritized and scheduled. When work such as replacing the stator winding in a generator arises, specialized equipment and a large increase in temporary labor are required. This is an example of when USACE can use AM practices to determine when to add labor as needed, when to obtain specialized tools, when to contract work out, and when to delay non-critical work.

As USACE improves its maintenance monitoring system through MMIP, the data gathered is providing input for long-term decision-making. If multiple dams are experiencing trends of a certain turbine blade lasting beyond the expected service life, or a specialized pump encountering unexpectedly high temperatures prior to failure, another dam can use these lessons learned to monitor their pump temperatures more frequently or possibly delay turbine blade replacement to allow funds to be used elsewhere.



USACE Walla Walla District stretches from Wyoming into Washington State and is part of the Northwestern Division, which also includes Portland District and Seattle District in the Pacific Northwest, plus two more districts in the Midwest: Omaha and Kansas City. USACE dams and other Civil Works projects in the region have proven to be an excellent proving ground for the implementation of the AM System.

Northwestern Division districts work with each other on communicating successes, best practices, improvements and innovations that make the division a national leader in AM program implementation.

One such innovation was creation of Asset Management Requirements Identification and Prioritization (AMRIP) software. AMRIP allows USACE to effectively capture local short- and long-term asset requirements, and to use watershed-informed budgeting, which considers an entire watershed as a system with competing demands and limited funding. The program allows work activities to be prioritized with all pertinent information needed to enable management’s financial decisions based on asset condition and risk of consequence.

Before the sun rose today at Corps dams on remote river stretches across the country, mechanics, electricians and crane operators got to work. They began cleaning fish screens, replacing seals, and performing other critical maintenance. Those workers, and the entire Corps of Engineers, continue to do their job to allow fish passage while holding back potential floods; ensure barges full of grain make it to ocean terminals; provide safe and reliable low-cost electricity to the American consumer; and continue to improve efficiency and reliability of those efforts.

Just as the Army keeps rolling along, so do America’s rivers—and with them, the responsibility of successful asset management of water resources infrastructure.

1st Lt. Colin J. Westlake, P.E., USA, is Infrastructure Planner, USACE Walla Walla District;