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The federal government authorized and built hundreds of major dams across the nation. Today, most of these water projects are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the Bureau of Reclamation. Much has changed since these projects were built decades ago, including laws, values, scientific knowledge, water uses, and climate. But many reservoirs continue to store and release water under old plans, because the Corps and the Bureau do not make a practice of reviewing and revising the operating plans for their projects. This article argues that the agencies should develop and implement a program for reviewing their project operations plans, considering alternative operating regimes and involving the public in the process. This article begins by reviewing the purposes for federal water projects, and identifies some of the trade-offs involved in operating projects for certain purposes. It then addresses the legal factors that determine or influence project operations, beginning with project authorizing statutes and ending with federal environmental laws. The article examines Corps and Bureau policies regarding project operating plans, the reasons for agency reluctance to review and revise their plans, and some of the factors that prompt the agencies to proceed with reviews. It then summarizes periodic review requirements in two analogous contexts—federal lands management plans, and hydropower project licenses—and considers the potential significance of these requirements for federal water projects. Finally, the article examines what the Corps and the Bureau, along with the courts and Congress, are already doing on this issue, and what more they could do to ensure that project operating plans are reviewed and revised. It concludes with some brief observations about why the agencies should proceed with such reviews.

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Columbia Journal of Environmental Law



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