USDA NRCS Emergency Watershed Protection Program
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) offers an Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program to provide both technical and financial assistance to help local communities and individual landowners recover from disaster events that impair a watershed. The EWP Program provides two assistance program options for Recovery and Floodplain Easements. All EWP Program funding is provided to NRCS through Congressional appropriations. EWP Program funding offers the benefit of providing potentially faster and greater geographic coverage support for disaster-impacted communities because while a disaster event is required for eligibility, a presidential disaster declaration is not. Individuals may consider EWP Program funding in a climate change adaptation context, for example, to reduce riverine or coastal flooding, and provide ecosystem and agricultural benefits that are compatible with conservation through floodplain easements.
Primary EWP Funding Programs
There are two primary programs under the broader EWP Program that can be used for climate adaptation to reduce flooding and to restore ecosystems: EWP Program – Recovery. and EWP Program – Floodplain Easements.
In general, the EWP Program cannot be used to address problems that existed prior to a disaster event or for structural improvement projects that simply seek to improve the level of protection of a structure above the existing level at the time of the disaster. In addition, EWP Program assistance is not available for a project’s operation and maintenance, or to repair private or public transportation facilities or utilities, install non-essential restoration work that will not reduce or eliminate adverse impacts from a disaster, or to restore projects installed by another federal agency.
EWP Program – Recovery
Under the EWP Program – Recovery, funding can be used to repair land and infrastructure damaged during disaster events, as determined by NRCS (presidential disaster declarations are not required to allocate this type of funding). Public and private landowners are eligible for the Recovery program for a variety of projects including:
- Removing debris from stream channels, road culverts, and bridges
- Reshaping and protecting eroded streambanks
- Correcting damaged or destroyed drainage facilities
- Establishing vegetation cover on critically eroding lands
- Repairing levees and structures
- Repairing conservation practices
Landowners may consider using this funding for climate change adaptation-related projects, such as conserving rural lands to minimize land loss in response to flooding, and supporting agricultural operations after extreme weather events.
Applications for EWP Program - Recovery funding must be made through a “local sponsor” - defined as cities, counties, towns, conservation districts, flood and water control districts, or any federally recognized Native American tribe or tribal organization, or a legal subdivision of state or tribal government. Sponsors must secure rights to the project land and necessary permits for the repairs, provide the local funding match for repairs, and ensure that repairs are completed using federal or local contracts. Funding for eligible projects is split between NRCS and the local sponsor, with NRCS paying up to 75%, and local sponsors the remaining 25% in money or in-kind services.
EWP Program – Floodplain Easements
The second primary program under the EWP Program that can be used for climate adaptation to reduce flooding and restore ecosystems is the EWP Program - Floodplain Easements. Under the Floodplain Easements program, NRCS offers financial and technical assistance to purchase floodplain easements on agricultural, residential and open lands. The aim of this program is to restore acquired land to its natural floodplain condition and conserve natural functions and values, such as for wildlife habitat and recharging groundwater. As a part of this program, any structures within the easement are either required to be demolished, and removed or relocated outside the affected floodplain area. Landowners of agricultural or open lands, or lands primarily used for residential housing located within a floodplain are eligible, and may consider the Floodplain Easement program to support managed retreat to reduce threats to life and/or property from flooding.
NRCS may acquire the following types of land for floodplain easements:
- Lands damaged by flooding at least once during the previous calendar year or subject to flood damage at least twice within the previous 10 years.
- Lands that contribute to the restoration of floodwater storage and flow, offer a way to control erosion, or improve the practical management of the floodplain easement.
- Lands that would be inundated or adversely impacted as a result of a dam breach.
Only agricultural, residential, or open lands are eligible to be enrolled in the EWP Program - Floodplain Easements. One advantage of an easement as compared to an acquisition is that landowners are still able to live on other areas of their property and retain several use rights, including the right to control public access and to continue recreational uses, such as hunting and fishing.
For agricultural or open lands, NRCS will pay a landowner up to the entire cost of the easement value and up to the entire cost for land restoration. If the lands are primarily used for residential housing, NRCS will pay up to the entire easement value, and up to the entire cost of the structure's value, if the landowner chooses to have it demolished. However, if a landowner prefers to relocate the residence instead of demolishing it, NRCS will pay all costs associated with relocating the structure to a location outside the floodplain. The additional funding above the price of the easement that NRCS offers to demolish or relocate structures is unique - and can encourage retreat in vulnerable coastal and riverine areas.
Interested landowners can enroll their land in a permanent EWP Program floodplain easement by contacting their local USDA Service Center and may apply for assistance directly at their local NRCS office when project funding for floodplain easements is available (local NRCS offices will publicize this information in affected communities).
Benefits of the EWP Program
The benefits of the EWP funding under both programs is that it can provide support to those eligible for assistance without a presidential disaster declaration, (which can often increase the time it takes for people in need to receive funding), and can be limited geographically. However, it is important to note that the state legislature or local sponsor in the case of the EWP Program – Recovery must still provide match funding. Also, the criteria for both programs require that funding be used to reduce threats to life and property, be economically, environmentally, and socially sound, and be designed according to acceptable engineering standards, if applicable.
- Funding program