Federal Water Tap, August 7: Agencies to Assess Value of Nature

The Rundown

  • The Biden administration proposes guidelines for valuing ecosystems in cost-benefit analyses.
  • The administration also releases key themes for the upcoming National Nature Assessment.
  • A federal advisory council adopts a policy on preserving historic sites vulnerable to a changing climate.
  • The Justice Department proposes standards for web content accessibility that would affect municipal utilities.
  • The GAO tracks the slow increase in federal flood insurance premiums required to adequately insure against mounting flood risk.
  • The BLM’s watchdog agency says more work is needed to prevent idled oil and gas wells from polluting land, air, and water.

And lastly, the EPA’s science advisers evaluate the agency’s environmental justice screening tool.

“Many benefit-cost analyses involve ecosystem services, and standardized guidance on how to assess relevant changes and how to value such services will help promote consistency and predictability in these analyses.” — Richard L. Revesz, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The Biden administration released draft guidance for assessing ecosystems in cost-benefit analyses.

By the Numbers

34 Percent: Share of federal flood insurance holders who are paying insurance premiums that fully reflect the flood risk of their property. Caps on annual premium increases mean that more than a decade will pass before most policyholders are paying a full-risk premium. According to the GAO, it will take until 2037 to reach the 95 percent level. This would result in a shortfall of $27 billion in premium payments.

$12.5 Million: Proposed fine levied against two pipeline companies (Belle Fourche Pipeline Company and Bridger Pipeline LLC) for violating pipeline safety laws. Belle Fourche spilled crude oil into a North Dakota creek in December 2016, and Bridger spilled crude oil into the Yellowstone River, in Montana, in January 2015. The proposed federal consent decree also orders the companies to strengthen their pipeline system operations.

News Briefs

Valuing Ecosystems
New guidance from the Biden administration instructs federal agencies how to incorporate ecosystem values into the cost-benefit analyses that underpin regulatory decisions about everything from highways and port expansions to limits on carbon emissions.

The draft guidance presents step-by-step instructions, standardized across the agencies, for converting trees and wetlands into numeric values. Dollar equivalents preferred. Then quantified benefits. Descriptive benefits if all else fails.

The administration is inviting comment on its approach for hard-to-quantify variables, such as cultural values. Another thorny area: not double-counting benefits.

Public comments are being accepted through September 18. Submit them via www.regulations.gov using docket number OMB–2022–0016.

National Nature Assessment
How are America’s land, air, and water changing? And at what cost?

That’s the gist of the first National Nature Assessment, which is being conducted by federal science agencies and outside collaborators.

The assessment’s purview is overwhelmingly broad: the “status, observed trends, and future projections of nature in the United States.”

To place some boundaries on the undertaking, the Biden administration released an outline of the assessment’s key themes. Those include:

  • Conservation and natural resource management
  • Economic interests
  • Human health and well-being
  • Safety and security

Cross-cutting themes are climate change and equity.

Public comments on these themes are being accepted through September 18. Submit them here.

ADA for Web Content
The Justice Department is proposing new standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act that would make web content more accessible to people with physical impairments.

The standards would apply to state and local governments including municipal water utilities. New documents posted online and on mobile apps would have to comply. Old reports and documents that are no longer current would not need to be updated.

Public comments are being accepted through October 3.

Studies and Reports

Flood Insurance Review
The federal flood insurance program should be modified to better account for risk and affordability, according to a Government Accountability Office audit.

The GAO says that Congress should replace the caps on annual premium increases with a means-based assistance program. The watchdog agency suggests that Congress amend program rules in order to entice private insurers while also allowing FEMA to adjust certain fees to account for property flood risk.

Climate Change and Historic Sites
The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a group that advises the federal government on protecting historic sites, finalized a policy for incorporating climate change into that sort of work.

The policy recommends a process: identify sites threatened by climate change, incorporate Indigenous knowledge, and address potential impacts in planning documents. The policy acknowledges that not all sites can be preserved in their current state and that low-income communities will need help protecting cherished locations. The policy suggests that the federal government issue guidance for historic sites vulnerable to climate impacts.

Idled Well Assessment: BLM Makes Progress But More To Do
The Bureau of Land Management is improving its oversight of oil and gas wells that are no longer producing. But according to the agency’s watchdog, there is more work required to prevent these idled wells from polluting land, water, and air.

The BLM implemented five of 11 recommendations from a 2018 report. But the Office of the Inspector General says that six more still need work, including a way to track idled wells and verify data.

On the Radar

Key Colorado River Report Due
In the next two weeks the Bureau of Reclamation will release a report that determines how the Colorado River’s big reservoirs will be operated in the coming year.

Environmental Justice Screening Tool Evaluation
The EPA’s science advisers will hold a public meeting on August 14 to discuss their draft evaluation of EJScreen, the agency’s tool for assessing pollution burdens on disadvantaged communities.

The advisers recommend refining the tool, as well as adding regional and local versions — comparable to CalEnviroScreen in California — that could incorporate appropriate data sets for those scales.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.

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