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GAO: Emergency Watershed Protection Program Could be Improved With Additional Guidance

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. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) 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 have told a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review that 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. 

To be eligible for the EWP program, a project must address damage that poses a threat to life or property, and the benefits of the project must generally outweigh the costs. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (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.

GAO reported that 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 GAO found 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. 

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.

Read the full report at GAO

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