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ASCE Recommends Changes to Water Resource Guidelines

July 2008 Volume 33, Number 7

In early June the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a public meeting on revisions to the principles and guidelines (P&G) adopted by the U.S. Water Resources Council in March 1983 ( At issue here are both the economic and environmental principles for water and related land resources implementation studies and the economic and environmental guidelines for water and related land resources implementation studies. Together, these principles and guidelines define what the federal government must consider when performing cost-benefit analyses of water resource projects. ASCE has submitted recommendations to the Corps that would significantly change the P&G so that safety, watersheds, low-income households, the environment, and risk management would be incorporated into the planning process.

The revisions are a result of section 2031 of the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, which was introduced in the House by Representative Jim Oberstar (D-Minnesota) and is now law. The act states that the secretary of the army must revise the P&G to ensure that the best available economic principles and analytical techniques, including risk and uncertainty analyses, are used; that public safety is included in the formulation of alternatives and recommended plans; that assessment methods are used “that reflect the value of projects for low-income communities and . . . that use nonstructural approaches to water resources development and management”; that attention is given to the interactions of a project with other water resources projects located in a particular region; that integrated water resource management and adaptive management approaches are employed; and that evaluations guarantee that the projects will provide justifiable benefits to the public.

ASCE notes in a statement listing its recommendations to the Corps that “the problems with the implementation of the 1983 P&G are well known.” It states that the main focus of the P&G is on the nation’s economic development and that safety is mentioned only peripherally. “The present P&G do not do enough to emphasize the importance of public safety,” it states. Moreover, the P&G place “relatively less emphasis on the noneconomic needs of society and do a poor job of establishing which projects may damage the environment.”

ASCE recommends that a new strategy be adopted that focuses not just on economic development and public safety but also on objectives that support sustainable development. “Our nation’s quality of life is highly dependent on enhancing the environment. National water resources planning objectives must include [the] restoration of aquatic ecologies,” the Society’s document states.

Although ASCE takes issue with the current P&G for placing too much attention on economic development, it recognizes that economic development should continue to be a factor in the planning process. Its recommendations state that “the development of our nation’s water resources fosters economic development, facilitates trade and commerce, aids international competitiveness, stimulates employment, provides water recreation opportunities, enhances agricultural and industrial productivity, and augments our national defense.”

ASCE contends that, by focusing on individual projects, the P&G give insufficient attention to such water resource systems as watersheds. It calls for more collaboration between federal and nonfederal bodies in water resource planning and implementation. “A full range of best management practices, including those of other federal agencies, nonfederal governments, and nongovernmental organizations,” is needed to find the best watershed solutions in a particular area, it states. “Different perspectives and a more comprehensive discussion and evaluation of complex problems, interrelated concerns, and potential projects are more likely to occur with a collaborative approach.”

To improve the overall watershed of an area, ASCE recommends that the basic assessment of a stream should include monitoring conditions at points along a stream over time and that the data be used to assess the effect that the project is having on the stream’s habitat. It also suggests that upland areas need to be considered rather than just the stream corridor. ASCE’s document states that “the P&G should require the use of a unified subwatershed and site reconnaissance—a comprehensive survey of upland areas to identify potential pollutant sources and restoration opportunities of the watershed.”

The revised P&G should also look at ways of protecting low-income households when planning water resource projects, according to the ASCE statement. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which swept across New Orleans and other portions of the Gulf of Mexico, illustrate how the current economic development objective “does not take into serious consideration the protection of low-income households,” it states.

The Society’s recommendations also relate to risk management and uncertainty analysis. For, example, they suggest the following steps:

  • Develop and implement up-to-date risk management guidelines;
  • Formulate and implement strategies to reduce the risk to public safety posed by natural and man-made hazards;
  • Establish core risk assessment research programs to ensure that risk management is based on adequate scientific data and appropriate processes;
  • Encourage and facilitate public participation in formulating risk assessment guidelines.

Effective risk assessment, comparative risk analysis, risk management, and public participation will enable government agencies and private entities to “make informed decisions in land use, infrastructure development, mitigation for natural hazards, and establishment of environmental standards,” the recommendations state.

 “ASCE hopes that the revision recognizes the need to be flexible, timely, and open to innovation in the marketplace of water resource planning,” the statement concludes. The revisions to the P&G are to be completed by November 8, 2009.

—Brett Hansen