The basic function of the National Environmental Policy Act is to ensure that government agencies take environmental impacts into consideration prior to taking actions that could potentially have adverse effects. The program relies on assessments of the environmental effects of proposed actions during the decision-making process to avoid such adverse impacts. The NEPA environmental assessment process applies when federal agencies have potential alternatives available when taking actions such as financing, assisting, conducting or approving projects or regulations. While all agencies within the executive branch of the federal government are responsible for implementing NEPA, the EPA is tasked with the review of compliance documents prepared by other federal agencies. Agencies can use categorical exclusions (CE) when agency actions are not likely to have any major environmental effects, with specific actions determined and listed by each agency. If an action is likely to impact the environment the agency must conduct an environmental assessment (EA), and if impacts are then anticipated the agency must prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS). Upon review of compliance documents, EPA will then summarize its recommendations to the federal agency, and if found unsatisfactory the issue is referred to the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
The 1972 Clean Water Act established the structure of water quality regulation in the United States, restricting discharges of pollutants into U.S. waters and establishing water quality standards for surface waters. EPA is responsible for compliance and enforcement activities associated with the CWA and has set wastewater standards for industry, water quality standards for contaminants in surface waters, and permit requirements for point source discharges into navigable waters. EPA also administers regulations relating to placement of dredged materials, fill of wetlands, estuaries, and other water bodies, and inspections of facilities at risk for oil spills. Guidance documents for the CWA have consistently supported protection for wetlands, as they provide water quality benefits to surrounding areas.
A 1987 amendment to the CWA established the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, an innovative method for financing state water quality projects. EPA funds the CWSRF at the state level with a 20% state match. States then use the fund to finance high priority water quality activities through low interest loans. Eligible recipients of assistance include local communities, non-profits, private entities, and citizen groups. As money is paid back into the fund from loans the fund is replenished and new loans are issued for additional projects, allowing funds to “revolve” at the state level. States are given flexibility in administering the program through control of loan terms and type of financial assistance provided. Focus areas of the program include municipal wastewater facilities, nonpoint pollution control, estuary protection, and green infrastructure, which is supported specifically by a Green Infrastructure Policy to promote increased funding of green infrastructure projects. Changes to the fund in 2009 also established the Green Project Reserve, which requires states to utilize a portion of appropriations for green infrastructure or other environmentally innovative activities.
The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System is the permit system created through the CWA to regulate point sources of surface water pollution such as industrial, municipal, and agricultural facilities. These point sources are prohibited from discharging pollutants into U.S. water without a permit, which is issued through a partnership between EPA and state environmental agencies. Permits are either technology-based or water quality-based, and may be issued to individual facilities or groups of similar pollutant-dischargers. While the primary purpose of NPDES is to address water quality issues, the program has a nexus to coastal flood risk through its stormwater management provisions. NPDES best management practices for stormwater management can also reduce flood impacts through strategies such as low-impact development, which aims to restore an urban site’s ability to absorb stormwater rather than transport stormwater elsewhere.
The Coastal Barrier Resources System was established by the Coastal Barrier Resources Act of 1982 with the intention of minimizing loss of life, protecting natural resources, and reducing wasteful federal expenditures in vulnerable coastal areas. Areas within the CBRS, primarily undeveloped coastal barriers, are made ineligible for most types of federal assistance or new federal expenditures, including flood insurance under the NFIP, road construction, coastal engineering projects, and channel dredging. Flood insurance may still be available if a building was constructed prior to the CBRS designation, though such a policy cannot be renewed following substantial damage or improvement to the structure. In practice these restrictions limit federal subsidies within coastal areas by requiring non-federal entities and private developers to bear the full cost of building within high-risk coastal environments. Maps of the CBRS are currently undergoing a comprehensive modernization effort including measures for digital publication of program-area maps.
The National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grants program, authorized by the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection, and Restoration Act, provides matching grants to coastal states for the acquisition, restoration, management, or enhancement of coastal wetland resources. While the primary focus of the program is on the long-term conservation of coastal wetland ecosystems, an incidental nexus to coastal floodplain management exists for cases in which preserved or restored wetlands mitigate coastal flood risk. The program administers grants annually on a competitive basis and requires a minimum 25 percent non-federal match, with the majority of grants provided on a 50-50 match basis. Excise taxes on motorboat fuel and fishing equipment are used to support the program as part of the Sport Fish Restoration Account.
USFWS oversees the Endangered Species Program in partnership with NOAA. The USFWS program operates in the same manner as the NOAA program, with USFWS responsible for terrestrial and freshwater animals, plants, and invertebrates. Again a nexus to floodplain management exists through critical habitat protections for listed species as preserved aquatic, riparian, and floodplain habitat often provide flood risk mitigation benefits.
The goal of the USFWS Coastal Program is to achieve voluntary conservation of coastal habitats. As a non-regulatory program, the Coastal Program provides technical and financial assistance through collaborative partnerships to benefit federal trust species. The program is currently in place in 24 priority coastal areas along all major coasts of the U.S. as well as the Caribbean. At each coastal area local staff provide assistance for habitat conservation and design efforts as well as implementation of habitat restoration and protection projects. Projects generally involve a 1:8 ratio of federal to non-federal funding and are selected based on their relation to the program goals of improving coastal ecosystem resilience to climate change, supporting ecological integrity through science-based conservation design, facilitating the conservation and recovery of priority species, and building conservation partnerships. While the program is focused on threatened and endangered wildlife such as migratory birds and fish, the program’s landscape-scale approach towards coastal habitat conservation can bring a host of other benefits including mitigation of coastal flood risk.