Natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires can threaten life and property even after the disaster has passed. There can be increased risk of erosion, flooding, and more. USDA's Emergency Watershed Protection program seeks to help relieve imminent threats created by natural disasters. Congress appropriated over $1.3 billion to the program in FYs 2015-2020.
Stakeholders told us USDA's guidance was unclear on topics such as how to request program assistance and on what lands funds can be used. They also pointed to funding delays for urgent tasks that could prevent additional damage. Our recommendations address these issues.
Structure Damage After Colorado Flood Disaster
What GAO Found
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides assistance to project sponsors (e.g., state, local, or tribal governments) through the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program using a process that includes assessing damage, overseeing implementation of projects, and reimbursing project costs. To be eligible for the EWP program, a project must address damage that poses a threat to life or property (see figure), and the benefits of the project must generally outweigh the costs. NRCS officials said that if a site meets these conditions, the agency generally approves it. If NRCS has insufficient EWP funds, an approved project may be waitlisted until the agency receives additional funds from Congress.
Flood Damage to Homes in Colorado, 2013
Sponsors and other stakeholders generally described the EWP program as an important program that helps sponsors respond to disasters, but they also identified challenges, including the clarity of program guidance for sponsors. For example, many stakeholders identified areas where guidance was limited or unclear, including guidance related to the steps and forms needed for sponsors to request assistance. Some said it would be helpful to have such guidance, so potential sponsors can quickly learn key policies and procedures, such as time frames for applying for assistance and project time limits. Some NRCS state offices have developed guides to help sponsors understand program requirements, but NRCS does not have a national sponsor guide for the EWP program. As of October 2021, NRCS officials said that they were in the process of developing a national sponsor guide, which they anticipated issuing in 2022. However, from GAO's review of NRCS documents and discussions with NRCS officials, it is not clear whether the guide will address the challenges identified by stakeholders GAO interviewed. As NRCS continues developing its national sponsor guide, it should ensure that the guide clarifies these areas to help NRCS and sponsors better achieve their objectives of protecting life and property after a natural disaster.
Why GAO Did This Study
Hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and other natural disasters can damage watersheds, creating threats to life and property. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, extreme weather events in the United States are becoming more frequent and intense, in part due to climate change, which GAO has reported poses a significant fiscal risk to the federal government. USDA's EWP program provides technical and financial assistance to help project sponsors relieve imminent threats to life and property created by natural disasters. Congress appropriated over $1.3 billion to the EWP program from fiscal years 2015 through 2020.
GAO was asked to review the EWP program. This report (1) describes the process through which USDA provides assistance under the EWP program and (2) examines stakeholder perspectives on the EWP program, including any challenges and opportunities for improvement. GAO reviewed statutes, regulations, program guidance, and other documents. GAO also interviewed USDA officials and sponsors and other stakeholders in six states selected, among other reasons, because they received the most EWP funds from fiscal years 2015 through 2019.
GAO is making four recommendations, including that NRCS, as it develops a project sponsor guide for the EWP program, should ensure that the guide clarifies areas of limited guidance identified by stakeholders. NRCS and the Forest Service concurred with GAO's recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Natural Resources Conservation Service||The Chief of NRCS should assess the time limits for EWP projects and determine whether program regulations need to be revised. In doing so, NRCS may wish to consider collecting data on how long it takes for projects to be completed and the frequency and durations of waivers on time limits, and challenges that stakeholders identified. (Recommendation 1)|
|Department of Agriculture||The Secretary of Agriculture, in consultation with the Chiefs of NRCS and the Forest Service, should determine whether the department needs to seek another funding approach, including potentially changing how it requests funds from Congress, to minimize delays in getting EWP funds to sponsors. In doing so, the agencies may wish to assess how often delays occur, how long it takes sponsors to receive funds from the time they submit a request for assistance, and how this affects the program. (Recommendation 2)|
|Department of Agriculture||The Secretary of Agriculture, in consultation with the Chiefs of NRCS and the Forest Service, should develop an MOU or guidance clarifying roles and responsibilities for how and when EWP projects can be done on National Forest System lands. In doing so, the Secretary may wish to consider if the federal regulations should be updated to better reflect the current administration of the program, with NRCS as the sole administrator. (Recommendation 3)|
|Natural Resources Conservation Service||The Chief of NRCS should ensure, as the agency continues working on developing a sponsor guide for the EWP program, that the guide clarifies areas of limited guidance identified by stakeholders. In particular, the Chief should incorporate information regarding how and when EWP projects can be done on National Forest System and other federal lands into the guide. (Recommendation 4)|