The White House has released final federal interagency guidelines for evaluating planned water resources projects, the last piece of its five-year effort to rewrite the current, 31-year-old planning guide for the Corps of Engineers and three other agencies and broaden it to cover more agencies.
But Congress, in the recently enacted “Cromnibus” spending package, has blocked the Corps from implementing the new water resources Principles, Requirements and Guidelines (PR&G) through the end of fiscal year 2015.
The legislation doesn’t bar funding for other agencies to carry out the planning document.
In releasing the new interagency guidelines—the “G” in the PR&G—on Dec. 17, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) described the 1983 document as having “a narrow set of parameters to evaluate water investments.”
Mike Boots, CEQ’s chief, said in a statement, “By making smart investments in water infrastructure, the federal government can save taxpayer money and promote economic growth while protecting communities against extreme weather and other disasters.”
The new document's scope is wide. Taken together, the PR&G "constitute the comprehensive policy and guidance for federal investments in water resources," the interagency guidelines state.
But the Cromnibus measure says that the Corps must use the 1983 document—called the principles and guidelines— through next Sept. 30. It also says the Corps cannot use federal funds to implement the new version's principles and requirements, which CEQ issued in final form in March 2013.
The 1983 guide applies to the Corps, Bureau of Reclamation, Tennessee Valley Authority and Soil Conservation Service.
The 2013 and 2014 appropriations bills had similar one-year Corps funding bans for implementing the new planning document.
Environmentalists had criticized the 1983 planning document for stating that the only federal objective in water-project planning is “to contribute to national economic development” while being “consistent with protecting the nation’s environment.”
Under the new PR&G, the 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.
Industry groups find fault with the new PR&G.
Amy Larson, National Waterways Conference president, says, ”Over all, we remain concerned that this principles, requirements and interagency guidelines construct does not provide for consistent, balanced, replicable standards by which to develop water resources projects.”
Larson adds, “Throughout the document, environmental considerations are elevated over economic uses. And for long-term planning, we need to have a balanced approach to planning, development, construction and maintenance of water resources projects.”
Jimmy Christianson, Associated General Contractors of America director of government relations for federal and heavy construction, says, “You have an administration that’ll talk about how we need to get more projects shovel ready and out on the street and more investments in our infrastructure and more construction jobs. And on the other side, there’s documents like this that say we need to do more study, take more time.”
The rewrite itself has taken a long time. In 2007, Congress mandated that the 1983 Principles and Guidelines be redone by November 2009.
A 2008 rewrite late in the George W. Bush administration drew wide criticism and never became final, recalls John Doyle, special counsel with law and lobbying firm Jones Walker LLP.
When the Obama administration came into office in 2009, it decided to launch a new revision that would widen the document’s scope to include other agencies. It put CEQ in charge of the drafting.
Doyle, a former senior Army civil works official, adds, “That change in direction and scope is clearly one of the things that’s had the energy and water development appropriators, particularly, and Congress more generally, unhappy with what’s been going on since.”
That unhappiness resulted in the annual appropriations language barring implementation funding.
Olivia Dorothy, American Rivers associate director for Mississippi River management, sees much to like in the new federal water-resources guidance.
Dorothy said via email: “While evaluating project alternatives, the agencies will consider several new and important factors, like alternatives that restore naturally functioning ecosystems, long-term decommissioning costs for large projects, ways that environmental degradation can hurt the economy, and the social fabric of communities that depend on the rivers that flow through them.”
She added, “These new guidelines should require decision-making that leads to taxpayer-funded projects that truly benefit the public and the environment, not just corporate special interests.”
She views the new document as “a good first step,” and noted that the federal agencies still must “translate these new guidelines into action.”
The new PR&G adds more agencies under its umbrella, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the White House Office of Management and Budget. Each agency is to develop its own procedures for applying and implementing the new document.