Each year, the US government spends billions of dollars to build, maintain, and manage water infrastructure and water resources. Federal principles directing how the US Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies assess, plan, and invest in flood control, water storage, navigation infrastructure, and other water resources date back to 1983. The realities of science, economics, and ecology have long since thrown into doubt the utility of the old principles. Are structural approaches to flood control always better and smarter? How big is “big enough” to evaluate project impacts? What are best practices for tallying project costs—and benefits?
At long last, prompted by Congress, the 1983 principles (and accompanying details) have been updated. The new principles and requirements take major steps in moving federal water management into the 21st century.
- Their target is more comprehensive, applying to all federal agencies, projects, and programs that relate to water resources infrastructure and management. The goal is greater consistency in how agencies evaluate and manage projects.
- The framework is more holistic, requiring a watershed focus and an evaluation of how projects affect natural systems and their functions. Such a focus may prod agencies to consider more options, including how nature itself might offer some low-cost solutions to flood control through, for example, floodplain acquisitions. Its provisions on ecosystem services align with ideas set forth by my RFF colleague Jim Boyd and I.
- The decision processes emphasize collaboration, an imperative for managing water resources in which federal agencies, states, tribes, local governments, and the private sector all own and manage critical water infrastructure and resources.
- The requirements acknowledge risks, uncertainties, and complexities, pointing to the relevance of science and adaptive management that facilitates nimble adjustments in light of new knowledge and circumstances.
The new Principles and Requirements will likely preoccupy water policy wonks and budget bean counters. But their implications potentially touch communities across the nation struggling to repair antiquated water infrastructure, stave off damages of catastrophic storms, secure water supplies, and enhance water quality. Water is life, and this nation’s communities can’t afford missed opportunities for better, cheaper, smarter ways to manage water—whether for drinking, irrigation, and power—and reduce risks from flooding, contamination, coastal erosion, and degradation of natural systems that keep water clean and sustain water supplies. The new Principles and Requirements lay the foundations for creative and cost-effective water management solutions.