New White House Water Guidance Includes Ecosystem Services Approach

Kelli Barrett

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) just wrapped up the commenting period on the proposed new guidelines for evaluating Federal water resources investments. The Proposed Guidance is aiming for more balanced investments with an ecosystem services approach that will benefit both the economy and the environment.  

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) just wrapped up the commenting period on the proposed new guidelines for evaluating Federal water resources investments. The Proposed Guidance is aiming for more balanced investments with an ecosystem services approach that will benefit both the economy and the environment.

30 May 2013 | Human existence depends on ecosystem services, and while some are quite obvious – think carbon sequestration and water regulation – others, like soil regulation, are not. But they are all equally important and necessary in sustaining life, which is why there is a growing understanding and appreciation for these services. It’s also why the preservation and conservation of valuable ecosystems is appearing in government policies and planning.

For instance, the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which coordinates the executive branch’s environmental efforts, has recently released an updated version of the 1983 Principles and Guidelines on Water and Land Related Resources Implementation Studies to include an ecosystem services approach to the evaluation process. Previous guidelines focused almost exclusively on economic factors.

The Principles and Requirements for Federal Investments in Water Resources, or Proposed Guidance or P&R, for short, were released in March of this year. The guidelines are meant to instruct federal water and land related investments in projects ensuring that the agencies’ actions contribute to economic development while preserving the environment.

The 1983 Guidance, which is in effect right now, applies only to four agencies-the Army Corps of Engineers (COE), Bureau of Reclamation, Tennessee Valley Authority and Natural Resources Conservation Services. The Proposed Guidance expands to cover the water resources investment decisions coming from several other sectors such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce and Interior.

The new guidelines create a common framework for analyzing investments from various federal agencies in water-related projects and programs. Activities include grants, funding programs, studies on new infrastructure and proposals and plans affecting areas like national parks and forests.

While the Proposed Guidance do represent a possible shift in policy that recognizes the value of nature as an important component in economic development, it’s important to note that they are guidelines and not the rule for federal water resources investments. It’s unsure how effective they will be in moving toward a more balanced investment approach between the environment and the economy.

Looking at the effects of guidelines from the conservation and species banking industry-a relatively new sector familiar with functioning under guidelines rather than rules-they can provide a consistent message and direction for the entire sector but they lack the authority to supply incentives or reward the best players.

“Guidance has been useful as they send a clear message, and can be used by those willing and eager to have some consistency,” says Jemma Penelope, a private consultant to the conservation and species banking industry. “But they tend to promote rather than require.”

Timing also plays an important role in the effects. For conservation banking, Penelope believes the time is right to implement higher standards because there is a push from all sides involved and they agree it’s what the industry needs. Those involved in the water sector would need to determine if the time is right, as well, for guidelines prompting an ecosystem services approach or regulations requiring it.

An Ecosystem Services Approach

In order to evaluate these investments using an ecosytem services approach, the new guidelines propose a framework that links the social, environmental and economic impact of an activity and then evaluates it accordingly. By design, an ecosystem services approach traces the effects of a potential action through the watershed or ecosystem in order to capture its effects and better capture the value the ecosystem or watershed contribute to our economy and well-being, the documents reads.

Ecosystem services like water filtration, nutrient regulation and mitigation of floods and droughts can be difficult to quantify which is one reason why investment decisions have been mostly based on economic gains. The report argues that measuring water resources investments purely on economic gains no longer reflects national needs and the integrated ecosystem services approach will lead to more socially beneficial investments.

The Guidelines also promote using a watershed approach when investing in water projects. Similar to an ecosystem services approach, a watershed approach incorporates a wide range of stakeholders within and around the watershed when developing solutions. It takes the upstream and downstream conditions and needs into consideration when making decisions. This approach often allows for achieving multiple goals and utilizing water resources so all stakeholders benefit, according to the guidelines.

Possible Impacts

Along with an evaluation framework that is focused on ecosystem services, the Requirements call for Federal investments to utilize the best available data and technology and to collaborate between agencies in greater transparency. Risk and uncertainty, another Requirement, points out climate change as a significant threat. Analysis of climate change should be done using historical records and future models that project an altered climate, the document says. It also instructs using an adaptive management style, which is a scientific process that adjusts activities to reduce risk.

Other Requirements include considering the efficient use of water and competing demands as well as international issues regarding the resource.

The Proposed Guidance notes these Requirements should be integrated with other laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and offers Interagency Guidelines as assistance in blending the two processes.

The P&R will also likely have to be integrated into initiatives coming out of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which the Senate recently passed. Inside the WRDA is a pilot program called the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovative Authority (WIFA). WIFA will fund roughly $100 million of water infrastructure annually for five years. The program will authorize loans for projects like pipe replacement and new water supply facilities through the EPA and COE. And because of the Proposed Guidance’s expanded scope, the EPA and COE would be subject to its guidelines.

The impacts and effects of the P&R, however, remain uncertain. The open comment period ended on the 28th of this month.

Kelli Barrett is a freelance writer and editorial assistant at Ecosystem Marketplace. She can be reached at [email protected].

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