Faces of Rivers: Jo-Ellen Darcy, former Assistant Secretary of the Army, Civil Works

Faces of Rivers is an ongoing profile series from American Rivers

Jo-Ellen visits Folsom Dam near Sacramento in 2011. Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Jo-Ellen Darcy has worked in the world of water for 25 years, as Senate staff on the Environment and Public Works Committee and then as the civilian head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the Obama administration. She was also the Executive Director of the Great Lakes and Water Resources Planning Commission in Michigan.

We sat down with Jo-Ellen, now a member of American Rivers’ Board of Directors, to get her take on how far the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has come, how the Biden administration is doing, and where the biggest opportunities lie for American Rivers.

I think the Corps of Engineers has made incredible strides and has responded well to much of the change that’s necessary. I mean, they’re engineers, so they come up with different ways to address problems and find new solutions.

The Corps is a 200-year-old organization. It built the waterway system for this country. It built the lighthouses. It built so many things that we’re learning there are different ways to approach. I found them to be very open to new ideas. And they continue to evolve with the changing focus on sustainability and climate change.

The Corps is in a great spot right now to be a leader on some of the climate change initiatives that the Biden administration is going to undertake.

The president has put some incredibly talented, experienced and forward-thinking people in his cabinet. Gina McCarthy is just phenomenal. You’ve got a new EPA Administrator, Secretary Regan, who has done a lot of good work in North Carolina, including on environmental justice.

You usually think about infrastructure as something solid — a roadway, a runway or a railway. I think that there needs to be a fourth “R” in that equation. Rivers. This administration is leading with climate change and will be looking at infrastructure as an opportunity. That’s an opening for us as river advocates to get rivers into infrastructure conversations.

Conservation benefits the economy in so many ways. The one I think most about is tourism. Recreation is a huge driver for the economy, and without conservation efforts, the recreation industry wouldn’t exist. Obviously, recreation also provides important benefits for the health and well-being of people in this country.

Click here to read the “Rivers as Economic Engines” report.

American Rivers released a study about “Rivers as Economic Engines” in 2020. Investing $82 billion in infrastructure every year for 10 years would generate $220 billion in economic activity and would create 1.3 million jobs. Conserving rivers to keep them healthy has got to be viewed as a job creator and investment in the future.

We must also look at more public-private partnerships in future projects that are undertaken at the federal level. There’s got to be more skin in the game for the private sector in order to have an investment that’s going to be sustainable over time.

I would tell them to return to the Clean Water Rule that Gina McCarthy and I signed back in 2015. We also can’t ignore investment in our wastewater treatment, as we saw in Texas this last winter, as well as water quality. And we must invest in the existing infrastructure that the Army Corps of Engineers owns and operates — the hundreds of aging dams and locks that are falling apart. Most of them were designed for a 50-year life. When I left the agency, the average age of a dam was 65 or 70 years. So there needs to be that infrastructure maintenance to help rivers, as well as the economy.

[Editor’s note: In late March, the administration announced water infrastructure investments as part of its American Jobs Plan. The plan notes that the nation’s water systems are “crumbling” and proposes steps to protect clean, safe drinking water and invest in nature-based infrastructure, including wetlands and watersheds.]

I think we have an opportunity to work with the hydropower industry to look at how we can continue to remove unsafe and outdated dams ­ — and to make the ones we can’t take out work better for rivers. We can get more out of what’s existing by using improved technology. That doesn’t mean building new dams, but rather doing what we’re doing better and more efficiently.

Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River near Bridgeport, Washington, is one of the largest hydropower dams in the country. Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The Army Corps of Engineers provides 25 percent of the hydropower in this country. And those hydropower dams probably aren’t going away anytime soon, because they are providing a service. Many of the hydropower dams that the Corps owns and operates have adapted to fish passage and endangered-species requirements. But there are also ways that the Corps of Engineers can adapt its existing hydro turbines to be more energy efficient. More efficient hydro can help reduce our carbon footprint and is better for rivers.

As we employ every tool available to fight the existential threat of climate change, hydropower has a role to play. American Rivers has engaged in an effort to find common ground between the hydropower industry and the conservation community on the role hydro plays in addressing climate change. I think that the Corps is well positioned to be part of that conversation and to make some of those things happen.

American Rivers is the go-to organization that policy-makers think of when they’re looking at the future of rivers. We must continue to focus on conservation, on new Wild and Scenic designations, on water quality. I think the real opportunity for us lies in being at the table in the climate change debate with hydropower. We also have an opportunity to educate people about the importance of rivers — and that it is their responsibility to help care for rivers and make sure that rivers are there for their children and grandchildren.

Nashua River, New Hampshire. Photo: Seth Dewey / Unsplash

How can I pick a favorite? That’s like asking me about my favorite ice-cream — there are just too many. I love the Susquehanna and the Yellowstone. The Nashua River in New England ran right through my hometown. When I was growing up there, you could tell what color paper the paper company had made that week because the dye was flowing in the river, and the fish were dead and floating. The thing I like about the Nashua now is the fact that it is fishable and swimmable.

I love being on a river. I love going paddling. I like fishing. I like swimming. Everything about rivers brings me joy. And everyone’s life needs water to survive. Rivers provide that water.

We’re incredibly fortunate to have so many rivers in this country. But we, as a country, take for granted that we have the water that we do. I think we need to educate people that rivers are the source of two-thirds of their water, and that it’s not an infinite resource. You have to take care of it. And you have to know that not only is water important to your life, but it’s also important to the future of this country.

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