Consensus Report

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Proposed revisions to the 1983 principles and guidelines that guide federal water resources project planning studies need greater clarity and consistency to effectively aid federal decision makers, according to a National Research Council report.

Many changes in the national water resources planning landscape have occurred since the original document was issued. Planning methods and principles have evolved. New factors -- from better scientific understanding of aquatic ecosystems to increased cost-sharing requirements for local project co-sponsors -- affect water resources management decisions. The revised document must also address the requirements of the large range of modern systems and functions -- locks and dams, levees, navigation channels, ecosystem restoration, flood risk management, watershed protection, and water supply.

The Council on Environmental Quality issued the proposed revisions in 2009, in response to a congressional request that the "Principles and Guidelines" be updated.

Key Messages

  • General planning principles, steps, and concepts, as revised, could be part of a planning process. However, the principles are abstract and inconsistent, and the proposed planning steps are confusing and do not support practical implementation. The proposed revisions thus have only limited value as policy guidance and are inadequate as an operational, or "decision," document. As the Council on Environmental Quality proceeds with further revisions and provides more specific program guidance, these applications may become more clear.
  • The distinctions among objectives, principles, and standards in the proposed revisions are not clear, and the relationship among them is not maintained through the document.
  • The proposed revisions carry over concepts, advice, and language from historical practices that are not fully consistent with contemporary best practices in decision science and economics.
  • The proposed revisions will apply to the traditional federal water project construction agencies: the Bureau of Reclamation, the Corps of Engineers, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Natural Resources Conservation Service). Other federal agencies to which the document will apply, as well as specific programs, studies, and projects, are not clear.