Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954

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Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954


The Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954 (WPFPA) is a law that protects watersheds from erosion, sedimentation, and flooding. Under WPFPA, federal agencies work with local organizations to develop and implement flood control and watershed runoff plans. Flooding and poor watershed runoff management both damage the environment by carrying sediment and pollutants into streams and rivers. Sedimentation and pollution in water systems harms ecosystems and makes rivers and lakes unsuitable for fishing, swimming, or drinking. Federal and local agencies have also implemented numerous flood control plans to prevent property damage and loss of life that can occur from flooding.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Within a watershed, all surface and underground water drains to the same place. Watersheds are an important adjunct to the hydrological cycle. Precipitation that falls in an isolated mountain area may feed into a small stream, which then feeds into larger river systems. Precipitation that falls hundreds of miles inland may eventually feed back into the ocean. The watershed of an area determines where all water in that area goes. Almost every place in the world is located within a watershed. The Mississippi River Basin is the largest watershed in the United States. Approximately 41% of the land in the continental United States drains through the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

Restricting pollution within watersheds is important, because watersheds play a vital role in ecosystems and provide humans with water for irrigation and drinking. Water draining through watersheds can also be destructive. Floods are the result of too much water trying to drain through a watershed at once. By controlling the amount of water that drains through a watershed, humans can ensure a steady supply of water while also preventing, or lessening, flooding.

The U.S. Congress passed the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954 (WPFPA) to support watershed flood control projects throughout the United States. The goal of WPFPA is to preserve, protect, and improve the land and water resources and the quality of the environment in the United States. The WPFPA seeks to achieve the following: prevent flood, sediment, and erosion damage; further the conservation, development, use, and disposal of water; and further the conservation and use of land.

The WPFPA sought cooperation between U.S. Department of Agriculture and local organizations in preparing and implementing flood control plans. The WPFPA defines local organizations as a state or local government; soil or water conservation district; flood prevention or control district; other agencies with authority under state law to carry out works of improvement; nonprofit irrigation or reservoir company, water users’ association or similar organization; or tribal organization.

The WPFPA authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to construct flood protection measures below a certain volume limit. Such initiatives were to be cost-shared and localities were required to contribute rights-of-way. The law also required that the Secretary of the Interior be consulted regarding plans that affect reclamation, irrigation, or public lands controlled by the Department of the Interior.

Congress amended the WPFPA in 1956 to give Congress greater control over large flood control projects. The 1956 Amendments required the Secretary of Agriculture to submit to Congress any plan for works of improvement in watershed areas where the federal contribution exceeded $250,000 ($5 million under recent amendments) or the plan included a structure with a capacity greater than 2,500 acre-feet (3.1 million square meters, or about 108 million square feet).

The 1972 Amendments to the WPFPA stated that conservation of water and preservation of the environment were permissible general purposes for authorized projects. This change allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture and local organizations to undertake watershed projects for the sole purpose of protecting an ecosystem.

Impacts and Issues

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and local organizations have implemented numerous watershed protection and flood prevention plans over the last 50 years. Although these projects have greatly improved the environment and water supply, a 1994 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that nearly 40% of all waters in the United States were too polluted for fishing, swimming, or other uses. According to the report, the primary sources of pollution were silt, sewage, fertilizers, disease-causing bacteria, toxic metals, and oil and grease. Continued pollution of watersheds could take a large toll on the U.S. economy. The EPA estimates that more that $450 billion of the U.S. economy relies on healthy watersheds, primarily food production, manufacturing, and tourism.

The Mississippi River Basin and the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone highlight the need for continued watershed protection in the United States. Hypoxia is the absence of oxygen in reaching living tissue. An aquatic hypoxic zone, or dead zone, is an area of water that contains too little dissolved oxygen in the water to support aquatic life. Aquatic hypoxia zones usually occur when there is an overabundance of nutrients, such as nitrogen or phosphorous, in the water. The presence of these nutrients promotes excessive growth of algae, which reduce oxygen levels in the water. Excessive nutrients come from soil erosion, agricultural fertilizers, and runoff from developed land. The Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone reached a record area of 8,481 square mi (22,000 square km), an area the size of New Jersey.


EROSION: The wearing away of the soil or rock over time.

HYDROLOGICAL CYCLE: Hydrological cycle - natural water recycling; water evaporates from lakes, ponds, streams or wet earth; forms clouds; then precipitates as rain or snow back to Earth.

WATERSHED: The expanse of terrain from which water flows into a wetland, water body, or stream.

See Also Floods; Hurricanes: Katrina Environmental Impacts; Water Resources; Water Supply and Demand; Watersheds


Web sites

Institute of Public Law, University of New Mexico School of Law. “Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act.” http://ipl.unm.edu/cwl/fedbook/wpfpa.html (accessed May 1, 2008).

National Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act.” http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/watershed/p156631705.pdf (accessed May 1, 2008).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Watersheds: A Watershed Approach.” March 28, 2008. http://www.epa.gov/owow/watershed/approach.html (accessed May 1, 2008).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Watersheds: Introduction.” May 8, 2007. http://www.epa.gov/owow/watershed/framework/chl.html (accessed May 1, 2008).

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Digest of Federal Resource Laws of Interest to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act.” http://www.fws.gov/laws/lawsdigest/WATRSHD.HTML (accessed May 1, 2008).

Joseph P. Hyder