The White House is rewriting standards for federal water projects, widening 26-year-old rules that guide the Army Corps of Engineers in an effort to consider environmental and social goals as well as economic ones.
The move, long sought by environmentalists, pre-empts an Army Corps effort to rework its guidelines under a 2007 mandate from Congress to go beyond economic considerations in planning water projects.
"The administration is considering expanding the scope of the principles and guidelines to cover all federal agencies that undertake water resource projects," said Christine Glunz, spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The council revealed the initiative in a recent Federal Register notice.
The planning guidelines were developed in 1983 by the U.S. Water Resources Council, an inter-agency group that disbanded soon after. They apply to the Army Corps, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The White House has not pinpointed which other agencies would fall under the umbrella of new guidelines, but experts said likely candidates include U.S. EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Agriculture and Interior departments. Agencies that deal indirectly with water issues, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Transportation Department, could also be included.
Terry Breyman, a corps official working at CEQ, will spearhead the effort, Glunz said.
The fundamental point of reference for water planners is current guidelines that emphasize economic gains, though the Army Corps -- the nation's largest water management agency -- increasingly recognizes other goals, as well.
"There are things that are not discussed in the principles and guidelines, which are not necessarily precluded, but some people feel they ought to be specifically dealt with," said Robert Stearns, a water resources consultant who was the Army's deputy assistant secretary of civil works during the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Those goals include ecosystem restoration, public safety and watershed management planning, among others, Stearns said.
Environmentalists have long been criticized the corps's civil works programs for damage done to natural resources, and the agency has been accused in recent years of rigging economic studies to justify billion-dollar projects. The corps is also facing renewed scrutiny in the wake of 2005's Hurricane Katrina, when crucial flood protections failed in New Orleans.
"It is widely recognized that the nation's water priorities have been shifting and changing over the past quarter-century, but the primary planning tool which is used by the water resources agencies has remained exactly the same," said David Conrad, senior water resources specialist for the National Wildlife Federation.
"The Obama administration is absolutely correct to approach this on a broader framework," Conrad added. "Probably the biggest complaint one gets within the water world for planning is the failure of federal agencies to coordinate with each other."
Water industry groups that have been weighing in on the revised Army Corps guidelines expressed dismay that the revisions of water policies are beginning anew at CEQ.
"If they feel that the scope of revising the principles and guidelines ought to be broadened, we would happily support that," said Howard Marlowe, a lobbyist on coastal issues. "It's just that's not what the  law says. We don't think CEQ has the authority to hijack that process and make that decision on its own."