Missouri River Basin: Agencies' Progress Improving Water Monitoring Is Limited

GAO-15-558R Published: Jun 09, 2015. Publicly Released: Jun 09, 2015.
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What GAO Found

Federal agencies have made limited progress implementing recommendations to improve snowpack and soil moisture monitoring outlined in a February 2013 interagency report. According to officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), although it has not established a time frame for doing so, the Corps plans to develop a document that will describe the mandate from the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) that directs implementation of the February 2013 recommendations. Within this document, the Corps plans to include an assessment of whether it is more appropriate for the Corps or other federal agencies to implement the mandate and to describe the priority the Corps has assigned to this effort with respect to its other programs. Corps officials plan to make the document publicly available. Officials from the four other federal agencies identified in the WRRDA--namely the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), United States Geological Survey (USGS), and Bureau of Reclamation (BoR)--told GAO that they had not taken actions to implement the recommendations in the February 2013 report. Officials from NOAA and NRCS also told GAO that they are waiting for the Corps' decision as to whether it intends to undertake the lead agency role before making any further decisions about what role their agencies would have in implementing the recommendations.

Federal and state officials reported facing several challenges to implementing the February 2013 report recommendations. Specifically, officials from several federal agencies and states that were involved in developing the report said that the February 2013 report was intended to be a starting point for discussions. They said that, while it contains specific recommendations, it does not contain the details needed to implement those recommendations, such as where new climate stations would be located. Therefore, some federal officials said that additional work and detailed engineering and other studies would need to be completed before implementation of the recommendations could occur. In addition, numerous federal and state officials also mentioned uncertainty about the availability of resources as a challenge to implementing the recommendations in the February 2013 report, including funding for equipment, personnel, and ongoing maintenance.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Missouri River is a critical national resource, stretching 2,341 miles from western Montana to its mouth near St. Louis, Missouri. The Corps manages six dams and reservoirs along the river. In 2011, large amounts of snow and extreme rains along the Missouri River led to the greatest volume of runoff since 1898, when recordkeeping began. Following the flood, the Corps appointed a panel to conduct an independent technical review of its operations during the flood. The resulting December 2011 report stated that the Corps substantially underestimated the wet soil conditions in the plains and the plains snowpack in their water supply forecasts leading up to the flood. The report made recommendations on how the Corps could improve forecasting, including by improving data on soil moisture and snowpack in the upper Missouri River basin. In response to this report, several federal agencies and states coordinated to develop a set of interagency recommendations to improve snowpack and soil moisture monitoring, which were outlined in a February 2013 report titled "Upper Missouri River Basin Monitoring Committee-Snow Sampling and Instrumentation Recommendations." In June 2014, Congress passed the WRRDA, which directs the Corps to implement the recommendations from the February 2013 report in coordination with other federal agencies, including NOAA, NRCS, USGS, and BoR. WRRDA also included a provision for GAO to examine the agencies' implementation of recommendations in the February 2013 report. This report addresses (1) the extent to which federal agencies have made progress implementing the recommendations in the February 2013 report and (2) challenges federal and state officials reported that they face in implementing the recommendations in the February 2013 report. To address these objectives GAO reviewed the WRRDA and the February 2013 report and interviewed officials at the Corps, NOAA, NRCS, USGS, and BoR. GAO also interviewed officials, such as state climatologists or water officials, from the states identified in the February 2013 report--Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming--to discuss any challenges states face in implementing the recommendations in the February 2013 report. Included among the federal and state officials GAO interviewed were four of the five authors of the February 2013 report.

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