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This information is intended to convey the underlying concepts for Reclamation's decision processes. It is not mandatory.
See the Reclamation Manual for official Reclamation-wide requirements.

Reclamation's Decision Process Guide

Complex Situations

Many projects are extremely complex--involving many groups at all levels, interrelated issues and goals. Use the decision process as a framework to figure out what is going on.

The notes below are from a one day meeting with people just beginning a large, complex NEPA compliance process to implement a cooperative agreement between three Federal agencies, three states, over 30 water districts, environmental groups, and other publics. This agreement was designed to protect instream flows in four watersheds for endangered species.

pointNote: Click on the name of the step to get more information about that step in the process.


Step 1: Needs

Step 2: Goals

Step 3: Resources

Step 4: Options

Step 5: Workable

Step 6: Alternatives

Step 7: Best fit

Step 8: Select

Step 9: Do it

Step 10: Check back

Go On

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navigate in the page--Groundwork

Click on upto top
to get back to the top




upto topThis Session

  • What do you want to get done in this session?
  • What questions do you need to answer?

We set up a day long meeeting with the core EIS team. Before the meeting, we spoke with key people before the meeting to determine the goals for the day's session. We then confirmed these with the group at the beginning of the meeting.

The main goal for this session was to provide the opportunity to ask hard questions -- and figure out what questions to ask.

  1. What Federal actions are needed to achieve the stated purpose of the proposed program?
  2. How will we comply with NEPA?
  3. How will we approach the proposed plan?
  4. How will we determine how Federal action will interact with partner's actions?
  5. How will this process work to help provide a solution to an ongoing conflict over a limited resource(s) [water and habitat]?
  6. What decisions need to be made?

upto topDecisionmakers and Participants:

  • Who are the decisionmakers?
  • Who will influence the decision? How?

To determine who would need to be involved, we listed each group and asked what they had authority over and who would need to make decisions. We generated specific questions that the partners would answer to clarify decisionmakers.

The Partnership will involve many different decisionmakers at different levels. These decisionmakers need to be identified and kept informed. We need to determine who will be responsible for what decision, and what legal and procedural requirements will be needed to get the appropriate approvals.


  • Who will decide what resources (staff, funds) to use in the NEPA process?
  • Who will decide what agencies will be involved and to what extent (e.g., cooperating agencies, lead agencies).
  • Who will sign the NEPA compliance documents (e.g., EIS, ROD)?
  • What procedures need to be followed to get these signatures?

Partnership Committee. --Set up through the Cooperative Agreement, includes representatives from Federal, state, water, and environmental interests. They will have "primary consultation"

  • What decisions will they make that will affect the Federal process and outcome?
  • What will their role in scoping be?
  • How will they monitor results?


  • How will the governors' office be involved?
  • What will the role of the state agencies be?

The Program is committed to working with the publics to get their input.

  • How will the publics be consulted?
  • How will their input be used?

navigate in the page--Step 1, Needs

Needs help determine what the program will address-and why the program exists.

Catalogue the various perceptions of needs from various publics.

upto topNeeds and problems

  • Who wants what?
  • What are the needs?

We used an affinity grouping exercise to list all the needs in the area.

On the break, participants catagorized these yellow stickies into general groups of needs. The groups on the right are only a small fraction of the ones we listed.

ThePartnership Agreement has outlined the needs that the Program will address (e.g.,habitat requirements, water development) and the Program objectives. Overall considerations include:

  • Mitigate impacts to help develop watershed management
  • Communication, decisionmaking process needs (team, governance
  • committee, public)
  • "Soft" needs subject to discussion
  • Determine what studies are needed to measure how the program fulfills these goals
  • Define acceptable approaches to adaptive management under NEPA and ESA
  • Ecosystem-based management approach for the river basins
  • Biological and physical monitoring criteria to evaluate "success" or measure "success" of program
  • Long-term monitoring process, adaptive management approach
  • Agreements and decisions to implement a program

upto topLegal and institutional needs

  • Meet legal requirements of the agreement
  • Determine if construction authority is required
  • Determine other legal and regulatory requirements (e.g. State laws)

upto topNeeds for a NEPA Compliance Process

To determine the best way to comply with NEPA, the EIS team must:

  • Define the nature of the EIS
    • Programmatic or specific?
    • Tiered or comprehensive?
    • "delegated" or "nondelegated"?
  • Identify the components of the cooperative program (Federal and non-Federal) thatwill be addressed in EIS
  • Ensure funding for studies
  • Coordinate timing for studies
  • Establish data needs milestones
  • Define steps beyond the programmatic EIS required for implementation
  • Identify target species considerations
  • Fulfill cooperative agreement
  • Fulfill ESA beyond target species

upto topData Needs

Appropriate data for the system to evaluate each proposed alternative's benefits and impacts are needed. to support a decision and evaluate long-term impacts? Data are needed to:

  • Understand/describe how current system functions (e.g. flow, sediment, vegetation species)
  • Evaluate ecosystem interactions
  • Understand what is wrong with existing system
  • Evaluate cumulative effects of basin development
  • Provide a scientific basis for action
  • Support the decisions
  • Comprehensive analysis tools are needed to investigate alternatives (management,physical, institutional). Areas for analysis include:
    • Hydrology
    • Integrated groundwater/surface water model
    • Economic
    • Detailed agriculture sector response model
    • Identify projected resource demands due to population growth in area
  • Data gathering and analysis will need to be examined to answer:
    • How accepted are the current data?
    • How well does current data reflect the ecosystems?
    • What questions does current data answer?
    • What do we know and what do we need to find out?
    • Do we have a scientific basis for evaluation?

upto topNeeds for Developing and Analyzing Alternatives

The Partnership Agreement outlines a proposed plan of action. NEPA requires that a broad range of alternatives be evaluated. To plan NEPA compliance, the EIS team needs to determine what types and range of alternatives to evaluate.

upto topNeeds for People and Funds

The Partnership Agreement is the result of many groups working together -- from Federal,state, and local agencies to environmental and water user groups. To work with these groups and determine how to comply with NEPA, the EIS team will have to:

  • Determine who will have what role in the NEPA compliance:
    • How can we involve nongovernmental parties that need to participate?
    • What support will be needed through the EIS and implementation?
    • How can we involve groups that need to participate but don't have funds?
  • Develop an EIS that can be supported by the Partnership Committee and the general public
  • Meet as many interests as possible of each constituent group
  • Have a solution that all parties can support or accept
  • Obtain funding to working through the NEPA compliance and implement the Program
    • What studies will need to be funded? When? Why?
    • Who will pay for meetings, documentation, etc?
    • How will we share costs equitably basinwide?

upto topHydrological and Biological Needs within the System

  • Water needs in the three state areas include:
  • Strategies for meeting water use requirements for human population and natural resources
  • Sources of water for enhanced flows for threatened and endangered species in river
  • "Regulatory certainty" for water users
  • Provide water for human uses
  • Municipal water
  • Future development of water resources while concurrently offsetting impacts
  • Determine minimum amount of improved flow conditions needed.
  • Protect "baseline" flow conditions
  • Locate sources of water for threatened and endangered species
  • Prevent future listing of aquatic/riverine species
  • Identify nontarget species considerations (e.g. ESA)
  • Remove jeopardy (habitat not limiting)
  • Provide for the needs of threatened and endangered species
  • Other needs of other species
  • Minimize impacts of current practices

navigate in the page--Step 2, Objective

Develop objectives to focus the program. Determine the objectives (those needs that your process may help to meet). You may need to spend some time separating out underlying real needs from positions. The rest of the decision process will focus on meeting these objectives.

TIP: Use ranking exercises to prioritize objectives.

upto topGoals, Objectives

  • What do we want the solution accomplish?
  • What will this solution do in 5 years? in ten? in fifty? in a century?


Objectives will neeed to be fleshed out with the team, decisionmakers, Partnership Committee, and participants. More objectives (e.g. water use and development without jeopardy) will need to be identified and agreed on.

upto topPartnership Agreement Objectives

We listed these during the discussion of needs, quickly went over them, and kept coming back to the objectives for the rest of the meeting.

This meeting was to provide an introduction to get questions on the table. Further, the program had a list of objectives the NEPA compliance process needed to meet.

  • Provide a solution to ongoing conflict
  • Cooperative approach
  • Equity for States
  • Eliminate jeopardy
    • Reduce shortages (for species)
    • Protect and develop habitat
    • Monitor and protect gains made for habitat --
  • Determine effective measurements (first phase)
  • Determine milestones for next phase

upto topNEPA Compliance Process Objectives

  • Comply with NEPA, ESA, etc., reasonably, fairly
  • Cooperative approach
  • Identify milestones
  • Determine data needs'
  • Evaluate, select, and implement a well balanced, workable solution
  • Work with all groups -- support a solution

navigate in the page--Step 3, Resources

Resources and constraints let you figure out what you have to work with and what the boundaries of the study are.

Determine the relationships and influences between available resources (physical, social, and political). These resources provide a reality check--- they determine how you will be able to meet the objectives.

Many resources also carry constraints with them. For example, authorizing legislation provides the authority to conduct the program as well as sideboards for scope, time, etc.

upto topWhat you have to work with

  • What resources do we have to solve the problem?
  • What don't we have?
  • What are the limits?

We brainstormed resources and catalogued this list after the meeting to have something to build on.



  • 20 years of previous studies
    • How accurate and comprehensive are the data?
    • Will people support the data?
    • What is there? What is missing?
    • What is significant?
  • Defined flow needs by species
    • How accurate and supportable are these?
  • Results from experimental habitat improvement
  • Final biological opinions
    • Are these basinwide?
    • How will they benefit endangered species?
  • Water conservation efforts and studies

upto topFunds

  • Interior has budgeted funds for 2 years
  • Will Reclamation have funds next year?
  • States and participants
  • Cost sharing funds
  • M&I funding/cost sharing

upto topPeople

  • Partners
  • Potential partners
  • Participants
  • Staff
  • Diversity, peer review, and pressure brought by States on each other
  • Institutional support
  • State providing water

upto topPhysical

  • Water
  • Land
    • Land trusts
    • Prior purchased land


upto topLegal

  • State water law
  • Water rights
  • ESA
  • FACA
  • FWCA-section 7 consultation
  • Other regulations
  • Wetlands-mitigate policy
  • Reregulation for habitat
  • Accounting system/agreements
  • Water law
  • Willing Participant" Rule, States must be willing

upto topAgreements and politics

  • Partnership Committee decisions
  • Elections
  • Cooperative agreement, proposed action

upto topTime and schedules

  • Other studies and actions
  • Goal is to complete NEPA in 2 years-ROD
  • Scoping
  • Before spring
  • Throughout process

navigate in the page--Step 4, Options

Options or components of solutions provide multiple ways to address each objective.

Consider all options presented at this point--they'll winnowed down later.

TIP: Go WILD! Have some fun.

What are your options?

  • What can participants do?
  • What can your team do?

We reviewed the background material before the meeting to list options already discovered. In the meeting, we brainstormed and invited participants to write their options on a flipchart.


Ways to comply with NEPA:

  • Scoping and communication:
  • Before spring
  • Throughout the process
  • Website
  • Newsletters
  • Meeting with governors, water users, environmentalists
  • Get suggestions on public meetings (Glen Canyon, Grand Island)
  • Determine serious problems with States

upto topNo Action

Always throw in the no action option (retire, quit, refuse to get involved at a Federal level) so that you can measure how much you truly need to act.

  • Quit
  • Retire
  • Don't do anything at the state or Federal level
  • Don't do anything with the partnership

upto topProcess

  • Look at other programmatic EISs (Glen Canyon, Columbia SOR, CVPIA)
  • Focus the actions to consider
  • Tier off a programmatic for individual projects
  • State component -- don't include projects but analyze net result, timing, and distribution
  • Don't cover construction, inundation impacts
  • Consider program objectives (only)
  • Limit to realistic possibilities
  • Front end reviews-timely studies
  • Form a consultant review type group similar to an engineering consulting group
  • Get a technical steering group together
  • Deal with strategic behavior
  • Involve parties-cooperative rather than independent
  • Hire a lawyer for each group
  • Use other peoples' analysis as much as possible to help generate buy in and avoid strategic positioning
  • Form cost-sharing agreements
  • Partnership Committee as EIS cooperators
  • Get technical people to do analysis on cooperative plan now
  • Contract out
  • Have partners do studies

upto topData Gathering and Analyzing the Alternatives

  • Characterize baseline--look at trends
  • Use existing studies, models
  • Linkages section--show how system works
  • Define connections between ground, surface water
  • Describe impacts on water use/economy
  • Limit watershed studies in a sensible way
  • Cumulative effects analyses
  • Quantitatively analyze -- forecast, work into analysis
  • Look at capping "cumulative creep"
  • Determine thresholds of impacts
  • Needs assessment-specify needs for threatened and endangered species
  • Track water use, land use changes-- mitigate

upto topFunding for the Program:

  • Joint budgeting
  • Budgets for long-term monitoring
  • Surcharge on water use--environmental compliance
  • Trust funds-Federal, State
  • Federal legislation for trust fund
  • Federal lottery

upto topInstitutional/Legal

  • Change State roles
  • Each State figures out how--others must accept
  • Change water laws
  • Use Federal mandate
  • Develop assurances to protect water

upto topMonitor/mitigate

  • Adaptive management
  • Prevent and account for accumulating effects
  • Measure success--technical group, breeding pair targets, gauge water, define baseline
  • Build monitoring criteria into program

upto topTiming

  • Long increments (10-13 years),
  • Short increments
  • No increments

upto topLand habitat

  • Land--get 10,000 acres in phases
  • Land retirement
  • Land acquisition

upto topDevelop wetlands

  • Bulldoze length of river
  • Mechanical clearing
  • Wide channels
  • Pave watershed
  • Develop wet meadows--management, nesting areas
  • Work with environmental groups to preserve land

upto topWater

  • Conserve water
  • Use USDA programs
  • Grow with less water, farmers change crops, processing plants
  • Turn all Nebraska farms into communes
  • Establish an environmental water account in Pathfinder Reservoir
  • Create market incentives (e.g. transfer, leasing, conjunctive use)
  • Groundwater recharge in Colorado

upto topStorage

  • Dredge out more volume in reservoirs (or other spots)
  • Dedicate all reservoir storage in one reservoir
  • Restore storage in reservoirs
  • New dams/many small storage dams or channels
  • Capture runoff (asphalt?)
  • Water-- get 70,000 acre feet flows
  • Improve flows

upto topSpecies

  • Species breeding program

navigate in the page--Step 5, Screening Criteria

Determine standards that each option must meet in order to work and weed fatal flaws.

Apply the criteria to each option consistently to develop a set of viable options.

upto topTrain wrecks, fatal flaws, things that blow up

  • What won't work? Why?
  • At what point won't it work?

These items are your screening criteria.

We listed these as they came up throughout the meeting. The team will refine them and apply them to see which options still work. They will document which options are eliminated--and why.


These criteria will need to be refined, however, they provide a general idea of the types of standards options will need to meet to be considered further:

  • Meet schedules
  • Meet Federal roles, responsibility
  • Be effective basinwide
  • Be effective -- take some steps for goals
  • Define end point-- habitat achieved
  • Provide a rationale linked to accomplishing it-- not just political
  • Be economically feasible
  • Comply with "Willing Participant" Rule
  • Acceptable
  • Not damage a species
  • Not impact development and local economy
  • Not pose a significant impact on local culture or way of life

navigate in the page--Step 6, Alternatives

Combine options to form alternatives. Develop a wide range of alternatives including no action. Check each alternative to ensure that it meets the objectives.

upto topGet a wide range of alternatives. After developing each alternative, ask:

  • Will it fulfill the objectives?
  • Will it work?
  • Can it be supported?
  • Can it be improved and refined?

When you refine alternatives, run them through the screening criteria to make sure you don't include fatal flaws.

We noted questions that needed to be answered in this stage throughout the meeting.


To develop alternatives, the EIS team will need to determine:

  • How to implement
  • Habitat requirements
  • Land--aspects: nesting, eating, roosting
  • Water--flows, quality
  • Development requirements
  • How to analyze/comply with NEPA
  • Resource
  • Categorize
  • Impact analysis
  • Length of monitoring
  • Nesting/breeding pairs
  • Existing models
  • Linkages-into real world
  • Characterize goal-habitat
  • Define what is required to remove jeopardy

Alternatives will be measured against several yardsticks, including:

  • No action
    • Consult on continued operation's jeopardy
    • Continue unacceptable
    • Baseline
    • Existing in 1997
      • What did exist in 1997?
      • What studies will be used to determine this?
  • Characterizations of habitat over time

navigate in the page--Step 7, Evaluation

Determine priorities: What do you need to consider so that an alternative best fits your situation? What will drive the decision? What is important to you?

upto topDevelop evaluation criteria to rank the alternatives. Perform analyses and weigh tradeoffs to compare alternatives.

We made a preliminary list of evaluation criteria throughout the day. Many of these were first suggested as screening criteria, but people agreed that these were desireable, rather than absolutely necessary for the alternative to work.


Evaluation criteria will include how well alternatives:

  • Protect species
  • Meet habitat goals to remove jeopardy
    • What is the threshold for jeopardy?
    • How will this be measured?
  • Goes furthest to remove uncertainty
  • Prevent more listings
    • What flows, habitat, etc. are needed to prevent these listings?
    • Will listings be considered by species or by ecosystem?
  • Benefit nontarget threatened and endangered species
    • How will we measure these benefits?
    • What research is needed for section 7 coordination?
  • Protect flows and habitat
    • How will we measure these protections?
  • Work basinwide
  • Promote economic development
  • Can do it within the budget
  • Be Acceptable
  • Ensure equity, fairness, local involvement
  • Promote environmental justice

navigate in the page--Step 8, Selection


Think about how the selection process will work throughout the action to avoid possible delays and surprises.

upto topDecision

The people identified in Groundwork (above) look at all the tradeoffs and select what best meets the needs and objectives at the moment.

Then they set up a plan to ensure this works--and to revisit it later.

We noted considerations at this step throughout the meeting.


Present the analyses to the decisionmaker and the public. The decisionmaker then selects a workable alternative and explains the rationale to the public.

Considerations for planning on selecting an action:

  • Decisionmakers-Interior
    • Who will decide what and when
  • Partnership Committee
    • What will their role be in selecting, evaluating
  • States
    • What will the states be able to support
    • States will have to go through their decision processes
  • Format and procedures
    • Formally binding decision
    • What are the procedures needed for signatures and review?
  • Budget
  • How to get it in place

navigate in the page--Step 9, Implement

TIP: Keep this step in the forefront at all times.

upto topIdentify and fund responsible implementors to carry out the decision. Find and communicate with newly affected and interested publics.

We noted considerations at this step throughout the meeting.


The implementation is twofold--the NEPA compliance itself and the Program. While planning for these, ask about:

  • Commitments--Who will do what?
  • Players--Who needs to be involved?
  • States--What are their roles?

Funding for what and when--How will actions and studies be funded? Will anything appear to be a conflict of interest?

navigate in the page--Step 10, Monitor and Follow up

TIP: Set aside regular times to check back.

upto topMake sure the solution continues to work by providing for maintenance and operation of physical structures and administration of institutional solutions. Examine the situation and modify the solution when necessary. Afterwards, discuss the decision process and let others know what worked and what didn't. Carry these lessons over into future problem-solving efforts.


The Cooperative Agreement looks to long-term commitments, monitoring, and adapting.

NEPA compliance efforts will need to plan for the long term by looking a adaptive management, including:

  • Analyzing phase II
  • Determining what actions might be taken based on later findings
  • Determining how to work with changes in players or situation

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navigate in the page--Go On

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Please contact Deena Larsen 303-445-2584 with questions or comments on this material.