Five Ways the Water Resources Development Act Harms Wildlife

Florida Panther (Photo: Rodney Cammauf/National Park Service)
We all know that water resources projects have a huge impact on wildlife and habitats.  And when they go wrong, they go really wrong: as the Army Corps drained the Everglades (per the direction of Congress) to make room for sugar farms and other development, they decimated populations of the Florida panther, the roseate spoonbill, the West Indian manatee, and many other vulnerable species. Great strides have been made toward restoring the Everglades, yet there’s no denying the impact of these past projects. It is more important than ever to ensure that water resources projects are approached in a way that uses non-structural solutions whenever possible and safeguards wildlife.

The Importance of Environmental Review

One of the best tools we have to protect wildlife from harmful Corps projects is called “environmental review.” Established under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—often called the “Magna Carta of environmental policy”—this process requires that the federal government consider the environmental impact of any project before deciding whether and how to proceed. When it works, it ensures that all federal projects (including water resources projects) are completed in a way that is better for wildlife, habitats, and public health. Environmental review is one of the most valuable tools we have to protect wildlife. 

However, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) — the legislation that Congress uses to guide Corps policy and say which water projects get built by the Army Corps of Engineers — is expected to be voted on by the Senate later this month, and significantly undermines environmental review.  This dangerous environmental streamlining makes it much harder for the public, scientists, and other agencies to have input on Corps projects. And not only does this bill make it harder to stop harmful Corps projects, it also fails to require the Corps to use non-structural and restoration solutions where they will work to solve a problem, despite the fact that these approaches would safeguard wildlife and habitats.  This legislation will have a negative impact on countless vulnerable species and undermine ongoing restoration and conservation efforts

Five reasons this bill is bad for wildlife

1. Undermines democracy by weakening public participation.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), all Americans have a legal right to know about and have a say in federal decisions. The NEPA review process is the only way that the public — including hunters, anglers, gardeners, and other outdoor enthusiasts — get to tell the Corps how projects affect them and the wildlife they care about. This WRDA limits public comment periods to either 60 days or 30 days, depending on the type of environmental review. Environmental review statements are often hundreds of pages long and full of dense scientific language: 30 days is barely enough time to read and understand a review, let alone consult experts and submit informed public comments. In addition, this legislation is worded so broadly that it obstructs not only NEPA, but also reviews under the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and other landmark environmental laws.

2. Significantly hampers the ability of other agencies to improve Corps projects.

The environmental review process also requires other agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to weigh in on Corps projects. By setting arbitrary and unreasonably short deadlines for reviews, imposing higher level reviews of even technical disagreements, and fining agencies up to $20,000 a week for missing deadlines, this legislation makes it much, much harder for agencies to fully evaluate a Corps project. Good science takes time, and the way this legislation changes the environmental review process doesn’t give experts enough time to adequately evaluate the impacts that a project could have on vulnerable fish and wildlife.

3. Tilts the scales of the project permit review towards approval—regardless of potential environmental impacts.

By fining agencies for not meeting these arbitrary deadlines, this Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) penalizes agencies that undertake a full deliberation of important environmental issues.  We fear that, in order to avoid fines, agencies — already facing restricted budgets — will rush to complete reviews even without having all the needed information, increasing the likelihood that environmentally harmful projects will be approved.

4. Doesn’t address the real cause of Corps project delays.

Research has shown that the NEPA review process is not the main cause of delays in federal decisions and projects. Delays are really driven by funding constraints, the Corps’ $60–80 billion project backlog, and the Corps insisting on planning highly destructive and controversial projects when far less damaging approaches are available. Streamlining environmental review is not likely to accelerate completion of Corps projects; but it is highly likely to let Corps projects move forward without a full consideration of the impacts on public safety, wildlife, and ecosystems.

5. Fails to improve the safety of our communities by using floodplains and other natural resources to help protect people and wildlife.

Using low impact solutions — for example, reconnecting streams with floodplains, and other nonstructural restoration measures — is frequently more cost effective and better protects people, wildlife, and the many businesses that rely on healthy rivers, coasts, and wetlands. During the past 20 years, structural Corps projects have played havoc with the nation’s fish and wildlife resources.  During the same period, despite the construction of innumerable federal flood damage reduction projects, the nation’s flood damages have increased at an alarming rate. By continuing to promote environmentally destructive and costly structural projects even when a cheaper and safer nonstructural solution is available, this WRDA puts people and wildlife at risk.

Take Action

Tell your Senator to make sure the Water Resources Development Act is good for wildlife.