Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on Feb. 26 that the USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) will provide $84 million to fund over 150 disaster recovery projects throughout 13 states. The projects are intended to address damage to watersheds from floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters, and bolster those sites for the future.
The Emergency Watershed Protection Program
The Emergency Watershed Program (EWP) is a disaster recovery assistance program that doesn't require a national emergency declaration to dispense assistance. It aims to help communities conserve natural resources by mitigating or removing imminent hazards such as floods, fires, and other natural phenomena. To do that, the program provides up to 75 percent of the cost of disaster recovery projects sponsored by a local entity, such as a city government.
In his announcement on Feb. 26, Secretary Vilsack said that the “USDA is committed to helping repair and rebuild the rural communities that anchor rural America and are a key part of our nation’s economy.”
Activities sanctioned under the EWP include removal of debris from stream channels, road culverts and bridges, levee repair, drainage facility repair, and establishing cover on critically eroded lands. The $84 million will focus on mitigation and restoration.
Projects include $5.9 million for debris removal and installation of stabilizing structures to prevent future erosion in Florida, $2.9 million for restoration for stream corridors and debris removal in Alabama, and $56.9 million to continue repairing flood-damaged areas of Colorado. Projects in Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Vermont will also receive funding.
For a full description of each state's funding, see here.
Investment in Disaster Prevention is Long Overdue
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the number of severe weather events that cause at least $1 billion in damages has increased from an average two per year in the 1980's, to over ten per year since 2010. The Center for American Progress reported Congress spent at least $136 billion on disaster relief between 2011 and 2013.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave United States infrastructure a D+ grade in its 2013 report card, estimating that $3.6 trillion would be necessary to fix critical infrastructure problems. Levees in particular earned a near-failing grade of D-, and the cost to repair or rehabilitate these levees is estimated to be $100 billion by the National Committee on Levee Safety, according to ASCE's summary.
Despite these numbers, federal allocation of disaster prevention funding has consistently fallen short. Some states are picking up on this, as California has in the wake of its ongoing drought. “We are facing growing risks despite the fact that we are making improvements,” Ellen Hanak, Senior Fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, told state lawmakers earlier this year. Other experts also testified to persuade California lawmakers to invest more in flood prevention before it was too late. California, however, is not one of the states receiving funding under the EWP.
With natural disaster costs on the rise, federal incentives for flood, fire, and other disaster prevention measures are more necessary than ever. The $84 billion provided by the USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service will aid in debris clearing, infrastructure repair and other activities now, to mitigate or even eliminate the costs of damage in the future.
Kathleen Bishop, Public Policy Intern
Warwick Group Consultants, LLC