Getting Section 404 permit approval from US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is a process that can take up to 3 years. A process that requires federal and state interagency coordination to review hundreds of pages of permit applications that are opened for public comment, all while running on lousy coffee. Now, imagine the process with 20 percent less staff.
That is one of the concerns presented by recently proposed national budget cuts.
The potential 31-percent budget cut from the EPA could result in the layoffs of more than 3,000 employees. If approved, an 11.7-percent cut from the Department of Interior includes the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management. The Department of Agriculture, which is often active in the mitigation process depending on location, could face a 20.7-percent cut. Additionally, USACE could have its budget slimmed by 16.3 percent under the proposed plan.
All of these departments and agencies participate on the interagency review teams (IRTs) responsible for reviewing and approving Section 404 permit applications, with USACE having final approval. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act regulates the discharge of dredged and fill material into waters of the United States (WOTUS).
This means, for almost any impact to a WOTUS, a permit from USACE must be obtained. With the reasonable expectation that the US will continue to need roads, bridges, hospitals, and shopping centers, there will continue to be a need for Section 404 permit approval.
So what do the proposed cuts mean for the mitigation industry – the consumers, the experts preparing the permits, the representatives developing and maintaining the banks?
The IRTs are already understaffed and barely meeting the deadlines imposed on them. With less staff, is it possible the permitting process for projects requiring mitigation could take even longer? Will the private investment in natural resource conservation, which has grown in recent years, slow? Or does this looming threat merely underscore the need to employ capable, knowledgeable consultants to streamline the cumbrous process?
But, alas, in a world of partisanship, is it possible all things will even out?
In spite of the proposed cuts to agencies like the EPA, the President has also promised regulatory reform to “ease the burden of unnecessary federal regulations that impose significant costs for workers and consumers without justifiable environmental benefits.” With less red tape, the need for staff to maintain said tape should also decrease. The President has also stated the budget cuts to the Interior will only affect land acquisition, meaning there may not be cuts to staff.
So, is a net-zero effect possible? Regardless of the proposed budget and the statements regarding regulatory reform, one fact remains: The Section 404 permitting process is arduous. The need for natural resource mitigation will surely remain; whether or not the approval process will be exacerbated by the proposed budget is unknown.
In the meantime, though, the need for efficiency in protecting our country’s ecological assets remains readily apparent.
About the author
- As an environmental scientist, Kate has more than 13 years of experience including ecological surveys and field studies, functional assessments, preparing environmental reports and permits, data management, stream channel and wetland restoration, peer reviewed research, and coordinating with local, state, and federal regulatory agencies, as well as public and private stakeholders.