Wetlands Overview:

Problems With Acreage Data Persist

RCED-98-150: Published: Jul 1, 1998. Publicly Released: Jul 16, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO: (1) developed an inventory of the federal agencies involved in wetlands-related activities and the funding and staffing associated with their activities during fiscal years (FY) 1990 through 1997; and (2) determined if the data on wetlands acreage reported by these agencies are consistent and reliable.

GAO noted that: (1) at least 36 agencies conducted wetlands-related activities during FY 1990 through FY 1997; (2) the total funding associated each year with the agencies' efforts ranged from about $508 million in FY 1990 to about $787 million in FY 1997; (3) staffing associated with the agencies' activities during this period ranged from about 3,271 full-time-equivalent staff-years in FY 1993 to about 4,308 full-time-equivalent staff-years in FY 1997; (4) six agencies were primarily involved in and responsible for implementing wetlands-related programs; (5) these six agencies accounted for more than 70 percent of the funding and 65 percent of the staffing associated each year with such activities; (6) the consistency and reliability of wetlands acreage data reported by the federal agencies are questionable; (7) the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service maintain resource inventories that provide estimates of the nation's remaining wetlands acreage, annual rates of wetlands gains and losses, and the primary cause(s) for losses; (8) although both inventories have reported that the rate of wetlands loss has declined, the inventories' estimates are not completely consistent; (9) a single set of wetlands acreage numbers that could be used to evaluate the progress made in achieving the goal of no net loss of the nation's remaining wetlands is not available; (10) officials from each of the agencies have questioned the estimates made by the other, and the Environmental Protection Agency has expressed concern about both inventories; (11) the agencies' current reporting practices do not permit the actual accomplishments of the agencies to be determined; (12) since 1989, several interagency groups have attempted to improve wetlands data; (13) because their efforts have not resolved these problems, the administration recently announced new efforts to improve wetlands data; (14) in May 1998, the administration issued a plan to accomplish a key action--the development of a single wetlands status and trends report; and (15) as of June 10, 1998, details have not yet been developed on how the other actions announced by the administration will be accomplished.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture concluded that it was infeasible to combine Fish and Wildlife Service national wetlands status and trends with data developed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Definitions for several aspects of wetlands gains and losses have been developed and were submitted to the White House Wetlands Working Group on October 28, 1999. Reporting procedures have also been developed, and an interagency tracking system to track the changes reported by the agencies is under development.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the consistency and reliability of wetlands acreage data are improved, the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of the Interior, in consultation with the Chairman, White House Wetlands Working Group, should develop and implement a strategy for ensuring that all actions contained in the Clean Water Action Plan relating to wetlands data are adopted governmentwide. Such actions should include, in addition to the ongoing effort to develop a single set of accurate, reliable figures on the status and trends of the nation's wetlands, the development of consistent, understandable definitions and reporting standards that are used by all federal agencies in reporting their wetlands-related activities and the changes to wetlands that result from such activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture concluded that it was infeasible to combine Fish and Wildlife Service national wetlands status and trends with data developed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Definitions for several aspects of wetlands gains and losses have been developed and were submitted to the White House Wetlands Working Group on October 28, 1999. Reporting procedures have also been developed, and an interagency tracking system to track the changes reported by the agencies is under development.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the consistency and reliability of wetlands acreage data are improved, the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of the Interior, in consultation with the Chairman, White House Wetlands Working Group, should develop and implement a strategy for ensuring that all actions contained in the Clean Water Action Plan relating to wetlands data are adopted governmentwide. Such actions should include, in addition to the ongoing effort to develop a single set of accurate, reliable figures on the status and trends of the nation's wetlands, the development of consistent, understandable definitions and reporting standards that are used by all federal agencies in reporting their wetlands-related activities and the changes to wetlands that result from such activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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