We evaluated NRCS’ controls over the EWP Program relating to hurricane disaster assistance provided for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.
Congress established the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program to respond to emergencies created by natural disasters. The EWP Program offers technical and financial assistance to help local communities mitigate imminent hazards to life and property caused by floods, fires, windstorms, and other natural occurrences that impair a watershed. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) administers the EWP Program by offering assistance through EWP-Recovery and floodplain easements. EWP-Recovery is designed to relieve imminent hazards to life and property. The EWP Program also offers assistance through floodplain easements, which provide an alternative measure to traditional EWP-Recovery where it is determined that acquiring an easement in lieu of recovery is the more economical and prudent approach to reducing a threat to life or property. There are two categories of emergency work within the EWP-Recovery Program: exigent and non-exigent.
In 2017, agricultural producers in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico were severely impacted by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, respectively. In the aftermath of these hurricanes, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requested and received $541 million to assist impacted areas and to be made available for NRCS’ EWP Program. According to Federal statute, NRCS was to receive funds, which would remain available until expended, for “Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations” to cover necessary expenses for the EWP Program related to the consequences of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria; wildfires occurring in calendar year 2017; and other natural disasters.
All EWP Program projects must be administered through a local sponsor or legal subdivision of State or Tribal governments. Eligible sponsors include cities, counties, towns, conservation districts, or any Federally-recognized Native American Tribe or Tribal organization. Project sponsors must:
- have a legal interest in, or responsibility for, the areas threatened by a watershed emergency;
- be capable of obtaining necessary land rights and required permits;
- be capable of performing all required operation and maintenance responsibilities;
- administer contracting when part of a local agreement; and
- document that they have exhausted other resources or have insufficient funding available to provide adequate relief from applicable hazards. The documentation may be in the form of a letter from the sponsor to the STC.
At the State level, the STC is responsible for implementing the EWP Program in the State, declaring a State or local emergency, ensuring that only eligible work is carried out, submitting a request for funding, and submitting final reports that include key program implementation information. States hold a signup period for the impacted communities and the local NRCS offices publicize that information in the affected communities. The STC transmits the information to NRCS Headquarters through an electronic disaster report. Once project sponsors have indicated they can fulfill project sponsor responsibilities, the STC and EWP State program manager establish an interdisciplinary team of State-level officials to complete an estimate of costs, called the Damage Survey Report (DSR). After DSR approval, an assigned NRCS representative works closely with the project sponsor on recovery measures, which may be accomplished through contracts or by using a project cooperative agreement.
Once NRCS enters into a cooperative agreement with a sponsor, the sponsor has 220 days for a non-exigent situation, or 10 days for an exigent situation, to implement recovery measures. For non-exigent projects, the STC submits a report to NRCS Headquarters every 60 days from the date the project is funded, and as needed for exigent projects. NRCS offers financial and technical assistance for various activities under EWP-Recovery, including, but not limited to, removing debris from stream channels, road culverts, and bridges; reshaping and protecting eroded streambanks; and correcting damaged or destroyed drainage facilities. All funded projects must demonstrate that they reduce threats to life and property, as well as that they are economically, environmentally, and socially sound. The EWP Program cannot be used to address problems that existed prior to the disaster. Furthermore, the EWP Program cannot be used to improve the level of protection above the level existing at the time of the disaster.
At the NRCS Headquarters level, national officials coordinate the EWP Program between States, ensure program compliance, and ensure the program is implemented uniformly. The financial management division notifies national and State officials by email when funds are available in NRCS’ financial management system. NRCS national officials assign a weather event project number and notify State officials when funds are in the financial system. Upon project completion, the State EWP Program manager will initiate the agreement closeout process within 90 calendar days of an agreement’s expiration. Upon completion of all emergency watershed protection work, the STC provides NRCS national officials with a final report describing the emergency recovery measures installed, financial and technical assistance expended, benefits provided, and excess financial and technical funds returned to national headquarters. EWP Program guidance requires NRCS national officials to maintain a database to evaluate the effectiveness of the EWP Program, including information from the final reports. Additionally, the EWP Program guidance requires that performance measures are tracked using the final reports.
In March 2013, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) published Audit Report 10703-0001-31, which found that NRCS needed to establish outcome-oriented performance measures in order to gauge the effectiveness of the floodplain easement component of the EWP Program and the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Operations Program. Additionally, the 2013 audit found that NRCS did not provide adequate information on how effective the programs were at accomplishing the goals of the funding received. During this current audit, we reviewed whether these conditions still existed for the EWP Program.
Our objective was to evaluate NRCS’ controls over the EWP Program relating to hurricane disaster assistance provided for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.
WHAT OIG FOUND
The Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program offers technical and financial assistance to help local communities mitigate imminent hazards to life and property caused by floods, fires, windstorms, and other natural occurrences that impair a watershed. In our review, we found that the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) did not establish and maintain a database to accurately track EWP Program projects at the national level. Without a database, NRCS is unable to assess, improve, or report on program effectiveness.
Additionally, we found that for 15 of 20 sampled Damage Survey Reports (DSR), sponsors did not provide required eligibility documentation and that all three States in our sample did not submit 60-day or final reports for our sampled DSRs. As a result, we question NRCS’ oversight of more than $239.7 million in EWP project funds. Furthermore, we found that State officials did not initiate the closeout process or de-obligate unused funds of more than $9.5 million for 18 signed cooperative agreements in a timely manner. As a result, this could lead to lengthy, unliquidated obligations and potentially prevent the funds from being used on other EWP Program projects. Finally, we found that NRCS had no performance measures specific to EWP. As a result, NRCS could not assess and report on the EWP Program’s effectiveness.
NRCS concurred with our recommendations and we accepted management decision on 7 of the 9 recommendations.