File photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
New document covers more agencies than previous version. BuRec programs still covered.

After years of discussion and drafting, the White House has issued revised standards for evaluating federally funded water projects. Announced by the Council on Environmental Quality on March 22, the new Principles and Guidelines, or P&G, are the first rewrite of this key planning document in 30 years.

The new P&G give more prominence to environmental factors than did the 1983 version and add floodplain considerations to criteria agencies will weigh.

The old P&G said the only federal objective in planning water projects is "to contribute to national economic development" while being "consistent with protecting the nation's environment." The new objective is to "reflect national priorities, encourage economic development and protect the environment" by maximizing sustainable economic development, avoiding "unwise use of floodplains," and protecting, restoring and mitigating "unavoidable damage" to natural systems.

The new standards also apply to more agencies. The 1983 P&G covered only the Army Corps of Engineers, the Interior Dept. Bureau of Reclamation, the Tennessee Valley Authority and what is now the Agriculture Dept. Natural Resources Conservation Service. The new version adds all other Interior and Agriculture agencies, plus the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Commerce Dept.

But Amy Larson, National Waterways Council president, notes that the continuing resolution (CR) enacted on March 26 bars the Corps from implementing the new P&G through Sept. 30. "That CR provision requires the Corps to use the older [P&G] version," she says. However, the CR restriction doesn't appear to apply to the other agencies.

The new P&G span a wide range of federal water-related activities, such as grants, revolving funds, loans and project studies, plus plans affecting national parks, wildlife refuges and forests.

Besides general "principles and requirements" for water-resources decisions, the new document has detailed, draft interagency guidelines, including the level of financial and environmental review warranted, depending on program or project size. The general principles and requirements won't take effect until 180 days after the more specific guidelines become final. That implementation isn't expected until late this year or in 2014. Comments on the draft guidelines are due by May 28.

Eileen Fretz, American Rivers director of flood management, says the new P&G "appear to be a strong step in the right direction." She adds, "They recognize that ... we need a balanced approach that recognizes the multiple benefits rivers provide communities." But Fretz and other environmentalists have concerns. For example, says Melissa Samet, National Wildlife Federation senior water-resources counsel, the new document "lacks clear guidance on how to satisfy the principles," and thus "the new decision standard is quite vague."

John Doyle, a former top Army civil-works official, says the new P&G "place a little more—but I think only a little more—emphasis on the environmental mission of the Corps." Doyle, special counsel with law and lobbying firm Jones Walker LLP, says the old version "was sensitive to and encouraging of environmental projects—that's why we had as many as we have had in the ... 30 years under those guidelines."

The revamped P&G have been long-awaited. In the 2007 Water Resources Development Act, Congress set a November 2009 deadline for the rewrite. In 2008, the Bush administration proposed changes, which didn't become final. The Obama administration released draft "objectives, principles and standards" in late 2009, but a National Research Council review found shortcomings. More than three years later, the new P&G are out.

Water-Resources Principles' Goals:
• Protect, restore ecosystem functions, mitigate unavoidable damage
• Encourage sustainable economic development
• Avoid unwise use of floodplains, minimize adverse impacts
• Assess public-safety threats from natural events
• Provide solutions that eliminate or avoid disproportionate harm to minority, tribal and low-income residents
• Use watershed-wide approach to analysis and decision- making

Note: List does not indicate any ranking among principles.

Source: White House Council on Environmental Quality