New U.S. Water Rules in the Making – A Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity to Fix Past Mistakes

As if weeks of flooding throughout the Mississippi River basin were not enough, now those floodwaters are expected to deliver yet another big punch: the creation of a giant “dead zone” in the fisheries-rich Gulf of Mexico.  Each year, the discharge of fertilizer pollution from the basin’s corn and soybean farms promotes algal growth that robs Gulf water of oxygen, stressing and killing fish and other aquatic life.  Due to all the fertilizer-laden floodwaters washed into the Gulf this spring, scientists are expecting this summer’s dead zone to measure between 8,500 and 9,421 square miles — an area roughly the size of New Hampshire and bigger than the largest dead zone measured to date, in 2002.

This summer’s dead zone could be

the size of New Hampshire.

This spring, the Mississippi River is broadcasting a message loud and clear: it’s time to put nature back into the water equation.   And hopefully, the ears of the Obama Administration are wide open, because it is now completing new guidance on federal dams, levees and other water projects that could influence the health of the nation’s rivers, lakes, wetlands and coastal zones for a long time to come. These guidelines on water planning have not been re-written since 1983.

An oysterman's stilt house sits above a vast expanse of marsh grass in 1971. Photo by James L. Stanfield.

Over the last century, the building of dams and levees, the draining of wetlands and the construction of houses and farms on historic floodplains has marched forward in the name of national economic progress.  These projects, however, have typically been justified by a very narrow definition of progress– one measured strictly in dollars and cents.  Other values harder to quantify, such as habitat for wildlife and the cleansing action of wetlands, often got short shrift.  As a result, rivers rarely flow like rivers any more, millions of acres of wetlands are gone, fish and wildlife habitat have disappeared, and flood risks in many areas are increasing.

Current water planning

guidelines date to 1983.

It’s time to bring our water management practices into the 21st century.  We now have a vast array of ecological science documenting the benefits of healthy ecosystems and the services they deliver to our economy.  But a narrow benefit-cost rule will never capture their value to the nation.  The question our federal water planners need to ask is not, for example, whether the construction of another levee will produce dollar benefits that exceed its costs.  Rather, the question is how federal investments can cost-effectively provide safety from floods while also restoring the wildlife and water quality benefits of natural floodplains.

The first draft of the Administration’s new water guidance, released for review in December 2009, was not encouraging.  The guidance was weak, the benefit-cost rule remained in place, and there was no mandatory requirement to favor less environmentally harmful alternatives.  Many of the destructive water projects of the past could get a “thumbs up” under those rules.

Instead of further chipping

away at ecological infrastructure,

we should be strategically

shoring it up.

Preparing the nation for a future of climate change with its attendant floods, droughts and threats to fish and wildlife, requires enlisting nature’s help.  Instead of further chipping away at ecological infrastructure, we should be strategically shoring it up.  Cities from Napa, California to Cedar Rapids, Iowa are doing just this, by moving away from conventional flood control toward greater use of wetlands and floodplains as natural flood defenses.

The Administration’s new guidance on federal water project planning provides an extraordinary opportunity to fix mistakes of the past and prepare us for the uncertain future ahead.  To set us on the right path, the new guidance should require that federal water planners adopt solutions that work with nature whenever possible to minimize the risk to communities, wildlife and the environment.

Water is not just a resource; it is the basis of life and the very core of our well-being.  At the end of the day, not everything that makes cents makes sense.


Related Posts

Mississippi Floods Can Be Restrained With Natural Defenses

Why Rivers Need to Flow — High and Low — Again


Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and lead water expert for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative.  She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.