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Title 7Subtitle BChapter VISubchapter FPart 650 → Subpart A

Title 7: Agriculture

Subpart A—Procedures for NRCS-Assisted Programs

§650.1   Purpose.
§650.2   Applicability.
§650.3   Policy.
§650.4   Definition of terms.
§650.5   Environmental evaluation in planning.
§650.6   Categorical exclusions.
§650.7   When to prepare an EIS.
§650.8   When to prepare an environmental assessment (EA).
§650.9   NEPA and interagency planning.
§650.10   Adoption of an EIS prepared by a cooperating agency.
§650.11   Environmental documents.
§650.12   NRCS decisionmaking.
§650.13   Review and comment.

Authority: 42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.; Executive Order 11514 (Rev.); 7 CFR 2.62, unless otherwise noted.

Source: 44 FR 50579, Aug. 29, 1979, unless otherwise noted.

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§650.1   Purpose.

(a) This rule prescribes procedures by which NRCS is to implement the provisions of NEPA. The Natural Resources Conservation Service recognizes NEPA as the national charter for protection, restoration, and enhancement of the human environment. NEPA establishes policy, sets goals (Section 101), and provides means (Section 102) for carrying out this policy.

(b) The procedures included in this rule supplement CEQ's NEPA regulations, 40 CFR parts 1500-1508. CEQ regulations that need no additional elaboration to address NRCS-assisted actions are not repeated in this rule, although the regulations are cited as references. The procedures include some overlap with CEQ regulations. This is done to highlight items of importance for NRCS. This does not supersede the existing body of NEPA regulations.

(c) These procedures provide that—

(1) Environmental information is to be available to citizens before decisions are made about actions that significantly affect the human environment;

(2) NRCS-assisted actions are to be supported to the extent possible by accurate scientific analyses that are technically acceptable to NRCS;

(3) NRCS-prepared NEPA documents are to be available for public scrutiny; and

(4) Documents are to concentrate on the issues that are timely and significant to the action in question rather than amassing needless detail.

(d) Procedures for implementing NEPA are designed to ensure that environmental consequences are considered in decisionmaking. They allow NRCS to assist individuals and nonfederal public entities to take actions that protect, enhance, and restore environmental quality.

(e) These procedures make possible the early identification of actions that have significant effects on the human environment to avoid delays in decisionmaking.

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§650.2   Applicability.

This rule applies to all NRCS-assisted programs including the uninstalled parts of approved projects that are not covered by environmental documents prepared under previous rules for compliance with NEPA. It is effective on the date of publication of the final rule. NRCS is to consult with CEQ in the manner prescribed by 40 CFR 1506.11 if it is necessary to take emergency actions.

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§650.3   Policy.

(a) NRCS mission. The NRCS mission is to provide assistance that will allow use and management of ecological, cultural, natural, physical, social, and economic resources by striving for a balance between use, management, conservation, and preservation of the Nation's natural resource base. The NRCS mission is reemphasized and expanded to carry out the mandate of section 101(b) of NEPA, within other legislative constraints, in all its programs of Federal assistance. NRCS will continue to improve and coordinate its plans, functions, programs, and recommendations on resource use so that Americans, as stewards of the environment for succeeding generations—

(1) Can maintain safe, healthful, productive, and esthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings that support diversity of individual choices; and

(2) Are encouraged to attain the widest range of beneficial uses of soil, water, and related resources without degradation to the environment, risk to health or safety, or other undesirable and unintended consequences.

(b) NRCS environmental policy. NRCS is to administer Federal assistance within the following overall environmental policies:

(1) Provide assistance to Americans that will motivate them to maintain equilibrium among their ecological, cultural, natural, physical, social, and economic resources by striving for a balance between conserving and preserving the Nation's natural resource base.

(2) Provide technical and financial assistance through a systematic interdisciplinary approach to planning and decisionmaking to insure a balance between the natural, physical, and social sciences.

(3) Consider environmental quality equal to economic, social, and other factors in decisionmaking.

(4) Insure that plans satisfy identified needs and at the same time minimize adverse effects of planned actions on the human environment through interdisciplinary planning before providing technical and financial assistance.

(5) Counsel with highly qualified and experienced specialists from within and outside NRCS in many technical fields as needed.

(6) Encourage broad public participation in defining environmental quality objectives and needs.

(7) Identify and make provisions for detailed survey, recovery, protection, or preservation of unique cultural resources that otherwise may be irrevocably lost or destroyed by NRCS-assisted project actions, as required by Historic Preservation legislation and/or Executive Order.

(8) Encourage local sponsors to review with interested publics the operation and maintenance programs of completed projects to insure that environmental quality is not degraded.

(9) Advocate the retention of important farmlands and forestlands, prime rangeland, wetlands, or other lands designated by State or local governments. Whenever proposed conversions are caused or encouraged by actions or programs of a Federal agency, licensed by or require approval by a Federal agency, or are inconsistent with local or State government plans, provisions are to be sought to insure that such lands are not irreversibly converted to other uses unless other national interests override the importance of preservation or otherwise outweigh the environmental benefits derived from their protection. In addition, the preservation of farmland in general provides the benefits of open space, protection of scenery, wildlife habitat, and in some cases, recreation opportunities and controls on urban sprawl.

(10) Advocate actions that reduce the risk of flood loss; minimize effects of floods on human safety, health, and welfare; and restore and preserve the natural and beneficial functions and values of flood plains.

(11) Advocate and assist in the reclamation of abandoned surface-mined lands and in planning for the extraction of coal and other nonrenewable resources to facilitate restoration of the land to its prior productivity as mining is completed.

(12) Advocate the protection of valuable wetlands, threatened and endangered animal and plant species and their habitats, and designated ecosystems.

(13) Advocate the conservation of natural and manmade scenic resources to insure that NRCS-assisted programs or activities protect and enhance the visual quality of the landscape.

(14) Advocate and assist in actions to preserve and enhance the quality of the Nation's waters.

[44 FR 50579, Aug. 20, 1979, as amended at 44 FR 54981, Sept. 24, 1979]

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§650.4   Definition of terms.

Definitions of the following terms or phrases appear in 40 CFR part 1508, CEQ regulations. These terms are important in the understanding and implementation of this rule. These definitions are not repeated in the interest of reducing duplication:

Categorical exclusion. (40 CFR 1508.4)

Cooperating agency. (40 CFR 1508.5)

Cumulative impact. (40 CFR 1508.7)

Environmental impact statement (EIS). (40 CFR 1508.11)

Human environment. (40 CFR 1508.14)

Lead agency. (40 CFR 1508.16)

Major Federal action. (40 CFR 1508.18)

Mitigation. (40 CFR 1508.20)

NEPA process. (40 CFR 1508.21)

Scope. (40 CFR 1508.25)

Scoping. (40 CFR 1501.7)

Tiering. (40 CFR 1508.28)

(a) Channel realignment. Channel realignment includes the construction of a new channel or a new alignment and may include the clearing, snagging, widening, and/or deepening of the existing channel. (Channel Modification Guidelines, 43 FR 8276).

(b) Environmental assessment (EA). (40 CFR 1508.9)

(1) An environmental assessment is a concise public document for which a Federal agency is responsible that—

(i) Briefly provides sufficient evidence and analysis for determining whether to prepare an environmental impact statement or a finding of no significant impact.

(ii) Aids an agency's compliance with the Act when no environmental impact statement is necessary.

(iii) Facilitates preparation of an environmental impact statement when one is necessary.

(2) An environmental assessment includes brief discussions of the need for the proposal, alternatives as required by section of the environmental impacts of the proposed action and alternatives, and a list of agencies and persons consulted.

(c) Environmental evaluation. The environmental evaluation (EE) (formerly referred to by NRCS as an environmental assessment) is the part of planning that inventories and estimates the potential effects on the human environment of alternative solutions to resource problems. A wide range of environmental data together with social and economic information is considered in determining whether a proposed action is a major Federal action significantly affecting the human environment. The environmental evaluation for a program, regulation, or individual action is used to determine the need for an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement. It also aids in the consideration of alternatives and in the identification of available resources.

(d) Federally-assisted actions. These actions are planned and carried out by individuals, groups, or local units of government largely on nonfederal land with technical and/or financial assistance provided by NRCS.

(e) Interdisciplinary planning. NRCS uses an interdisciplinary environmental evaluation and planning approach in which specialists and groups having different technical expertise act as a team to jointly evaluate existing and future environmental quality. The interdisciplinary group considers structure and function of natural resource systems, complexity of problems, and the economic, social, and environmental effects of alternative actions. Public participation is an essential part of effective interdisciplinary planning. Even if an NRCS employee provides direct assistance to an individual land user, the basic data used is a result of interdisciplinary development of guide and planning criteria.

(f) Nonproject actions. Nonproject actions consist of technical and/or financial assistance provided to an individual, group, or local unit of government by NRCS primarily through a cooperative agreement with a local conservation district, such as land treatment recommended in the Conservation Operations, Great Plains Conservation, Rural Abandoned Mine, and Rural Clean Water Programs. These actions may include consultations, advice, engineering, and other technical assistance that land users usually cannot accomplish by themselves. Nonproject technical and/or financial assistance may result in the land user installing field terraces, waterways, field leveling, onfarm drainage systems, farm ponds, pasture management, conservation tillage, critical area stablization and other conservation practices.

(g) Notice of intent (NOI) (40 CFR 1508.22). A notice of intent is a brief statement inviting public reaction to the decision by the responsible Federal official to prepare an EIS for a major Federal action. The notice of intent is to be published in the Federal Register, circulated to interested agencies, groups, individuals, and published in one or more newspapers serving the area of the proposed action.

(h) Project actions. A project action is a formally planned undertaking that is carried out within a specified area by sponsors for the benefit of the general public. Project sponsors are units of government having the legal authority and resources to install, operate, and/or maintain works of improvement.

(i) Record of Decision. (ROD) (40 CFR 1505.2). A record of decision is a concise written rationale by the RFO regarding implementation of a proposed action requiring an environmental impact statement. This was previously defined by NRCS as a Statement of Findings (SOF).

(j) Responsible Federal official (RFO). The NRCS Administrator is the responsible Federal official (RFO) for compliance with NEPA regarding proposed legislation, programs, legislative reports, regulations, and program EIS's. NRCS state conservationists (STC's) are the RFO's for compliance with the provisions of NEPA in other NRCS-assisted actions.

(k) Significantly. (40 CFR 1508.27) “Significantly” as used in NEPA requires considerations of both context and intensity:

(1) Context. This means that the significance of an action must be analyzed in several contexts such as society as a whole (human, national), the affected region, the affected interests, and the locality. Significance varies with the setting of the proposed action. For instance, for a site-specific action, significance usually depends on the effects in the locale rather than in the world as a whole. Both short- and long-term effects are relevant.

(2) Intensity. This refers to the severity of impact. Responsible officials must bear in mind that more than one agency may make decisions about partial aspects of a major action.

The following should be considered in evaluating intensity:

(i) Impacts that may be both beneficial and adverse. A significant effect may exist even if the Federal agency believes that on balance the effect will be beneficial.

(ii) The degree to which the proposed action affects public health or safety.

(iii) Unique characteristics of the geographic area such as proximity to historic or cultural resources, park lands, prime farmlands, wetlands, wild and scenic rivers, or ecologically critical areas.

(iv) The degree to which the effects on the quality of the human environment are likely to be highly controversial.

(v) The degree to which the possible effects on the human environment are highly uncertain or involve unique or unknown risks.

(vi) The degree to which the action may establish a precedent for future actions with significant effects or represents a decision in principle about a future consideration.

(vii) Whether the action is related to other actions with individually insignificant but cumulatively significant impacts. Significance exists if it is reasonable to anticipate a cumulatively significant impact on the environment. Significance cannot be avoided by terming an action temporary or by breaking it down into small component parts.

(viii) The degree to which the action may adversely affect districts, sites, highways, structures, or objects listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places or may cause loss or destruction of significant scientific, cultural, or historical resources.

(ix) The degree to which the action may adversely affect an endangered or threatened species or its habitat that has been determined to be critical under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 as amended.

(x) Whether the action threatens a violation of Federal, State, or local law or requirements imposed for the protection of the environment.

(l) Finding of no significant impact (FNSI). (40 CFR 1508.13) “Finding of No Significant Impact” means a document by a Federal agency briefly presenting the reasons why an action not otherwise excluded (§1508.4) will not have a significant effect on the human environment, and an environmental impact statement therefore will not be prepared. It shall include the environmental assessment or a summary of it and shall note any other environmental documents related to it (§1501.7(a)(5)). If the assessment is included, the finding need not repeat any of the discussion in the assessment but may incorporate it by reference.

[44 FR 50579, Aug. 29, 1979, as amended at 44 FR 54981, Sept. 24, 1979]

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§650.5   Environmental evaluation in planning.

(a) General. Environmental evaluation (EE) integrates environmental concerns throughout the planning, installation, and operation of NRCS-assisted projects. The EE applies to all assistance provided by NRCS, but planning intensity, public involvement, and documentation of actions vary according to the scope of the action. NRCS begins consideration of environmental concerns when information gathered during the environmental evaluation is used:

(1) To identify environmental concerns that may be affected, gather baseline data, and predict effects of alternative courses of actions;

(2) To provide data to applicants for use in establishing objectives commensurate with the scope and complexity of the proposed action;

(3) To assist in the development of alternative courses of action; (40 CFR 1502.14). In NRCS-assisted project actions, nonstructural, water conservation, and other alternatives that are in keeping with the Water Resources Council's Principles and Standards are considered, if appropriate.

(4) To perform other related investigations and analyses as needed, including economic evaluation, engineering investigations, etc.

(5) To assist in the development of detailed plans for implementation and operation and maintenance.

(b) Procedures. NRCS's Guide for Environmental Assessment issued in March 1977 and published in the Federal Register on August 8, 1977, provides guidance for conducting an environmental evaluation. (42 FR 40123-40167).

(c) Decision points. Figure 1 illustrates the decision points for compliance with NEPA in NRCS decisionmaking.

eCFR graphic er25jn08.003.gif

View or download PDF

[44 FR 50579, Aug. 29, 1979, as amended at 73 FR 35884, June 25, 2008]

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§650.6   Categorical exclusions.

(a) Some NRCS programs or parts of programs do not normally create significant individual or cumulative impacts on the human environment. Therefore, an EA or EIS is not needed. These are data gathering and interpretation programs and include:

(1) Soil Survey—7 CFR part 611;

(2) Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasts—7 CFR part 612;

(3) Plant Materials for Conservation—7 CFR part 613;

(4) Inventory and Monitoring—Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance—10.908; and

(5) River Basin Studies under section 6 of Pub. L. 83-566 as amended—7 CFR part 621.

(b) When any new action is planned under the programs identified in paragraph (a) of this section, the EE performed by the RFO is to identify extraordinary circumstances that might lead to significant individual or cumulative impacts. Actions that have potential for significant impacts on the human environment are not categorically excluded.

(c)(1) The NRCS restoration and conservation actions and activities identified in paragraph (d) of this section are eligible for categorical exclusion and require the RFO to document a determination that a categorical exclusion applies. Agency personnel will use the EE review process detailed in §650.5 to evaluate proposed activities for extraordinary circumstances and document the determination that the categorical exclusion applies. The extraordinary circumstances address the significance criteria provided in 40 CFR 1508.27.

(2) The extraordinary circumstances identified in paragraph (c)(1) of this section include:

(i) The proposed action cannot cause significant effects on public health or safety.

(ii) The proposed action cannot significantly affect unique characteristics of the geographic area such as proximity to historic properties or cultural resources, park lands, prime farmlands, floodplains, wetlands, wild and scenic rivers, or ecologically critical areas.

(iii) The effects of the proposed action on the quality of the human environment cannot be highly controversial.

(iv) The proposed action cannot have highly uncertain effects, including potential unique or unknown risks on the human environment.

(v) The proposed action cannot include activities or conservation practices that establish a potential precedent for future actions with significant impacts.

(vi) The proposed action is known to have or reasonably cannot be expected to have potentially significant environment impacts to the quality of the human environment either individually or cumulatively over time.

(vii) The proposed action cannot cause or promote the introduction of invasive species or have a significant adverse effect on any of the following special environmental concerns not previously identified in paragraph (c)(2)(B) of this section, such as: endangered and threatened species, environmental justice communities as defined in Executive Order 12898, wetlands, other waters of the United States, wild and scenic rivers, air quality, migratory birds, and bald and golden eagles.

(viii) The proposed action will not violate Federal or other applicable law and requirements for the protection of the environment.

(3) In the absence of any extraordinary circumstances as determined through NRCS' EE review process, the activities will be able to proceed without preparation of an EA or EIS. Where extraordinary circumstances are determined to exist, the categorical exclusion will not apply, and the appropriate documentation for compliance with NEPA will be prepared. Prior to determining that a proposed action is categorically excluded under paragraph (d) of this section, the proposed action must:

(i) Be designed to mitigate soil erosion, sedimentation, and downstream flooding;

(ii) Require disturbed areas to be vegetated with adapted species that are neither invasive nor noxious;

(iii) Be based on current Federal principals of natural stream dynamics and processes, such as those presented in the Federal Interagency Stream Corridor Restoration Working Group document, “Stream Corridor Restoration, Principles, Processes, and Practices;”

(iv) Incorporate the applicable NRCS conservation practice standards as found in the Field Office Technical Guide;

(v) Not require substantial dredging, excavation, or placement of fill; and

(vi) Not involve a significant risk of exposure to toxic or hazardous substances.

(d) The use of the following categorical exclusions for a proposed action does not waive NRCS compliance with any applicable legal requirement including, but not limited to, the National Historical Preservation Act or the Endangered Species Act. The following categorical exclusions are available for application to proposed actions provided the conditions described in paragraph (c) of this section are met:

(1) Planting appropriate herbaceous and woody vegetation, which does not include noxious weeds or invasive plants, on disturbed sites to restore and maintain the sites ecological functions and services;

(2) Removing dikes and associated appurtenances (such as culverts, pipes, valves, gates, and fencing) to allow waters to access floodplains to the extent that existed prior to the installation of such dikes and associated appurtenances;

(3) Plugging and filling excavated drainage ditches to allow hydrologic conditions to return to pre-drainage conditions to the extent practicable;

(4) Replacing and repairing existing culverts, grade stabilization, and water control structures and other small structures that were damaged by natural disasters where there is no new depth required and only minimal dredging, excavation, or placement of fill is required;

(5) Restoring the natural topographic features of agricultural fields that were altered by farming and ranching activities for the purpose of restoring ecological processes;

(6) Removing or relocating residential, commercial, and other public and private buildings and associated structures constructed in the 100-year floodplain or within the breach inundation area of an existing dam or other flood control structure in order to restore natural hydrologic conditions of inundation or saturation, vegetation, or reduce hazards posed to public safety;

(7) Removing storm debris and sediment following a natural disaster where there is a continuing and eminent threat to public health or safety, property, and natural and cultural resources and removal is necessary to restore lands to pre-disaster conditions to the extent practicable. Excavation will not exceed the pre-disaster condition;

(8) Stabilizing stream banks and associated structures to reduce erosion through bioengineering techniques following a natural disaster to restore pre-disaster conditions to the extent practicable, e.g., utilization of living and nonliving plant materials in combination with natural and synthetic support materials, such as rocks, rip-rap, geo-textiles, for slope stabilization, erosion reduction, and vegetative establishment and establishment of appropriate plant communities (bank shaping and planting, brush mattresses, log, root wad, and boulder stabilization methods);

(9) Repairing or maintenance of existing small structures or improvements (including structures and improvements utilized to restore disturbed or altered wetland, riparian, in stream, or native habitat conditions). Examples of such activities include the repair or stabilization of existing stream crossings for livestock or human passage, levees, culverts, berms, dikes, and associated appurtenances;

(10) Constructing small structures or improvements for the restoration of wetland, riparian, in stream, or native habitats. Examples of activities include installation of fences and construction of small berms, dikes, and associated water control structures;

(11) Restoring an ecosystem, fish and wildlife habitat, biotic community, or population of living resources to a determinable pre-impact condition;

(12) Repairing or maintenance of existing constructed fish passageways, such as fish ladders or spawning areas impacted by natural disasters or human alteration;

(13) Repairing, maintaining, or installing fish screens to existing structures;

(14) Repairing or maintaining principal spillways and appurtenances associated with existing serviceable dams, originally constructed to NRCS standards, in order to meet current safety standards. Work will be confined to the existing footprint of the dam, and no major change in reservoir or downstream operations will result;

(15) Repairing or improving (deepening/widening/armoring) existing auxiliary/emergency spillways associated with dams, originally constructed to NRCS standards, in order to meet current safety standards. Work will be confined to the dam or abutment areas, and no major change in reservoir or downstream operation will result;

(16) Repairing embankment slope failures on structures, originally built to NRCS standards, where the work is confined to the embankment or abutment areas;

(17) Increasing the freeboard (which is the height from the auxiliary (emergency) spillway crest to the top of embankment) of an existing dam or dike, originally built to NRCS standards, by raising the top elevation in order to meet current safety and performance standards. The purpose of the safety standard and associated work is to ensure that during extreme rainfall events, flows are confined to the auxiliary/emergency spillway so that the existing structure is not overtopped which may result in a catastrophic failure. Elevating the top of the dam will not result in an increase to lake or stream levels. Work will be confined to the existing dam and abutment areas, and no major change in reservoir operations will result. Examples of work may include the addition of fill material such as earth or gravel or placement of parapet walls;

(18) Modifying existing residential, commercial, and other public and private buildings to prevent flood damages, such as elevating structures or sealing basements to comply with current State safety standards and Federal performance standards;

(19) Undertaking minor agricultural practices to maintain and restore ecological conditions in floodplains after a natural disaster or on lands impacted by human alteration. Examples of these practices include: mowing, haying, grazing, fencing, off-stream watering facilities, and invasive species control which are undertaken when fish and wildlife are not breeding, nesting, rearing young, or during other sensitive timeframes;

(20) Implementing soil control measures on existing agricultural lands, such as grade stabilization structures (pipe drops), sediment basins, terraces, grassed waterways, filter strips, riparian forest buffer, and critical area planting; and

(21) Implementing water conservation activities on existing agricultural lands, such as minor irrigation land leveling, irrigation water conveyance (pipelines), irrigation water control structures, and various management practices.

[44 FR 50579, Aug. 29, 1979, as amended at 74 FR 33322, July 13, 2009; 75 FR 6556, Feb. 10, 2010]

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§650.7   When to prepare an EIS.

The following are categories of NRCS action used to determine whether or not an EIS is to be prepared.

(a) An EIS is required for:

(1) Projects that include stream channel realignment or work to modify channel capacity by deepening or widening where significant aquatic or wildlife habitat exists. The EE will determine if the channel supports significant aquatic or wildlife habitat;

(2) Projects requiring Congressional action;

(3) Broad Federal assistance programs administered by NRCS when the environmental evaluation indicates there may be significant cumulative impacts on the human environment (§650.7(e)); and

(4) Other major Federal actions that are determined after environmental evaluation to affect significantly the quality of the human environment (§650.7(b)). If it is difficult to determine whether there is a significant impact on the human environment, it may be necessary to complete the EE and prepare an EA in order to decide if an EIS is required.

(b) The RFO is to determine the need for an EIS for each action, program, or regulation. An environmental evaluation, using a systematic interdisciplinary analysis and evaluation of data and information responding to the five provisions of Section 102(2)(C) of NEPA, will assist the RFO in deciding if the action requires the preparation of an EIS. In analyzing and evaluating environmental concerns, the RFO will answer the following questions:

(1) Environmental impact. Will the proposed action significantly affect the quality of the human environment (40 CFR 1508.14)? For example, will it significantly alter or destroy valuable wetlands, important farmlands, cultural resources, or threatened and endangered species? Will it affect social values, water quality, fish and wildlife habitats, or wilderness and scenic areas?

(2) Adverse environmental effects that cannot be avoided. What are the important environmental amenities that would be lost if the proposed action were implemented?

(3) Alternatives. Are there alternatives that would achieve the planning objectives but avoid adverse environmental effects?

(4) Short-term uses versus long-term productivity. Will the proposed actions, in combination with other actions, sacrifice the enhancement of significant long-term productivity as a tradeoff for short-term uses?

(5) Commitment of resources. Will the proposed action irreversibly and irretrievably commit the use of resources such as important farmlands, wetlands, and fish and wildlife habitat?

(c) Criteria for determining the need for a program EIS:

(1) A program EIS is required if the environmental evaluation reveals that actions carried out under the program have individually insignificant but cumulatively significant environmental impacts.

(2) A project EIS, in lieu of a program EIS, is required if the environmental evaluation reveals that actions carried out under the program will have both individually and cumulatively significant environmental impacts. (7 CFR Parts 620 through 623 and 640 through 643).

(d) The RFO, through the process of tiering, is to determine if a site-specific EA or EIS is required for an individually significant action that is included in a program EIS.

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§650.8   When to prepare an environmental assessment (EA).

An environmental assessment (EA) is to be prepared for:

(a) Land and water resource projects that are not included in §650.7(a) (1) through (4) for which State and local units of government receive Federal technical and financial assistance from NRCS (7 CFR parts 620 through 623; and 640 through 643); and

(b) Other actions that the EE reveals may be a major Federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.

(c) Criteria for determining the need for a program EA:

(1) A program EA is to be prepared when NRCS has determined, based on the environmental evaluation, that a program EIS is not required and the program and actions to implement the program are not categorically excluded; and

(2) A program EA may also be prepared to aid in NRCS decision-making and to aid in compliance with NEPA.

(d) The RFO, through the process of tiering, is to determine if a site-specific EA or EIS is required for an action that is included in a program EA or EIS.

[44 FR 50579, Aug. 29, 1979, as amended at 73 FR 35886, June 25, 2008]

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§650.9   NEPA and interagency planning.

(a) Lead agency. (1) NRCS is to be the lead agency for actions under programs it administers. If the actions affect more than one State, the NRCS Administrator is to designate one NRCS state conservationist as the RFO.

(2) NRCS normally takes the role of lead agency in actions that share program responsibilities among USDA agencies if NRCS provides the majority of funds for the actions. If the lead agency role is in question, the role of NRCS and other USDA agencies is to be determined by the USDA Environmental Coordinator, Office of Environmental Quality Activities.

(3) If NRCS and Federal agencies outside USDA cannot agree on which will be the lead agency and which will be the cooperating agencies, the procedures in 40 CFR 1501.5(e) are to be followed.

(4) NRCS, as lead agency, is to coordinate the participation of all concerned agencies in developing the EIS according to the provisions of 40 CFR 1501.6(a).

(b) Cooperating agencies. (1) NRCS is to request, as appropriate, the assistance of cooperating agencies in preparing the environmental evaluation. This assistance will broaden the expertise in the planning and help to avoid future conflict. NRCS is to request assistance in determining the scope of issues to be addressed and identifying the significant issues related to a proposed action from Federal agencies that have jurisdiction by law or special expertise.

(2) NRCS is to act as a cooperating agency if requested. NRCS may request to be designated as a cooperating agency if proposed actions may affect areas of NRCS expertise, such as prime farmlands, soils, erosion control, and agricultural sources of nonpoint pollution. NRCS, as a cooperating agency, is to comply with the requirements of 40 CFR 1501.6(b) to the extent possible depending on funds, personnel, and priority. If insufficient funds or other resources prevent NRCS from participating fully as a cooperating agency, NRCS is to request the lead agency to provide funds or other resources which will allow full participation.

(c) Scoping. See 40 CFR 1501.7 for a definition of scoping.

(1) NRCS is to use scoping to identify and categorize significant environmental issues in its environmental evaluation. Formalized scoping is used to insure that an analytical EIS can be prepared that will reduce paperwork and avoid delay. Scoping allows NRCS to obtain the assistance and consultation of affected agencies that have special expertise or legal jurisdiction in the proposed action. If early environmental evaluation identifies a need for an EIS, NRCS is to publish a notice of intent (NOI) to prepare an EIS. The NOI is to request the assistance of all interested agencies, groups, and persons in determining the scope of the evaluation of the proposed action.

(2) Normally a scoping meeting is held and Federal, State, or local agencies that have special expertise or legal jurisdiction in resource values that may be significantly affected are requested to participate. The scoping meeting will identify agencies that may become cooperating agencies.

(3) In the scoping meeting, the range of actions, alternatives, and impacts to be evaluated and included in the EIS as defined in (40 CFR 1508.25) are to be determined. Tiering (40 CFR 1508.28) may be used to define the relation of the proposed statement to other statements.

(4) Periodic meetings of the cooperating agencies are to be held at important decisionmaking points to provide timely interagency, interdisciplinary participation.

(5) Scoping is to include the items listed in 40 CFR 1501.7(a) and may also include any of the activities in 40 CFR 1501.7(b). Appropriate, timely requests and notification are to be made to promote public participation in scoping in accordance with paragraph (d) of this section.

(6) The RFO through the scoping process will set time and page limits as prescribed in 40 CFR 1501.8. Time and page limits are established by NRCS in consultation with sponsors and others according to the projected availability of resources. The RFO is to make the applicant aware of the possible need for revising time and page limits because of changes in resources.

(d) Public participation—(1) General. Public participation activities begin early in the EE and are to be appropriate to the proposed action. For example, extensive public participation activities are required in the implementation of new programs and project actions, but limited public participation is appropriate for nonproject technical and financial assistance programs on nonfederal land.

(2) Early public involvement. The public is to be invited and encouraged to participate in the early stages of planning, including the consideration of the potential effects of NRCS-assisted actions on significant environmental resources such as wetlands, flood plains, cultural values, endangered species, important farmland.

(3) Project activities. The following are general considerations for providing opportunities for public participation:

(i) Identification of interested public. The interested public consisting of but not limited to individuals, groups, organizations, and government agencies are to be identified, sought out, and encouraged to participate in and contribute to interdisciplinary planning and environmental evaluation.

(ii) Public notices. (40 CFR 1506.6) If the effects of an action are primarily of local concern, notice of each public meeting or hearing should be: Submitted to State and areawide clearinghouses pursuant to OMB Circular A-95 (revised); submitted to Indian tribes if they are interested; published in local newspapers; distributed through other local media; provided to potentially interested community organizations including small business associations; published in newsletters that may be expected to reach potentially interested persons; mailed directly to owners and occupants of nearby or affected property; and posted onsite and offsite in the area where the action is to be located.

(iii) State statutes. If official action by the local units of government cooperating in the proposal is governed by State statute, the public notice and mailing requirement of the statute is to be followed. If the effects of an action are of national concern, notice is to be published in the Federal Register and mailed to national organizations reasonably expected to be interested.

(iv) Public meetings. The RFO, after consultation with the sponsors, is to determine when public meetings or hearings are to be held. Public meetings may be in the form of a workshop, tour, open house, etc. Public involvement will include early discussion of flood-plain management and protection of wetlands, where appropriate. Environmental information is to be presented and discussed along with other appropriate information. To the extent practical, pertinent information should be made available before the meetings.

(v) Documentation. The RFO is to maintain a reviewable record of public participation in the environmental evaluation process.

(4) Nonproject activities. Public participation in the planning and application of conservation practices with individual land users is accomplished primarily through conservation districts. These districts are governed by boards of supervisors directors, commissioners, etc., who are elected and/or appointed to insure that soil, water, related resources, and environmental qualities in the district are maintained and improved. The public is to be encouraged to participate in the development of long-range district programs and district annual plans. The district keeps the public informed through public meetings, district newsletters, news stories, radio and television programs, and annual reports.

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§650.10   Adoption of an EIS prepared by a cooperating agency.

(a) If NRCS adopts an EIS prepared by another Federal or State agency, the RFO is to review the document to insure that it meets the requirements of the CEQ regulations and NRCS-NEPA procedures.

(b) If the actions included in the EIS are substantially the same as those proposed by NRCS, the RFO is to recirculate the EIS as “final.” The final EIS is to include an appropriate explanation of the action. If these actions are not substantially the same, the EIS is to be supplemented and recirculated as a draft EIS. The RFO is to inform the preparing agency of the proposed action.

(c) If the adopted EIS is not final, if it is the subject of a referral under 40 CFR part 1504, or if the statement's adequacy is in litigation, the RFO is to include an appropriate explanation in the EIS.

(d) The RFO is to take appropriate action to inform the public and appropriate agencies of the proposed action.

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§650.11   Environmental documents.

(a) NRCS is to use the following documents in compliance with NEPA (see §650.4):

(1) Environmental assessments (EA)

(2) Environmental impact statements (EIS)

(3) Notice of intent (NOI)

(4) Finding of no significant impact (FNSI)

(5) Record of decision (ROD)

(b) The format and content of each document is to be appropriate to the action being considered and consistent with the CEQ regulations.

(1) To reduce duplication, NRCS may combine environmental documents with other planning documents of the same proposal, as appropriate. For example, NRCS, in consultation with CEQ and the office of the Secretary of Agriculture, has determined that each EIS is to satisfy the requirements for a regulatory impact analysis as required by Executive Order 12044. This may necessitate modifying the recommended CEQ format. If documents are combined, the RFO is to include the information and sections required by the CEQ regulations (40 CFR 1502.10). The environmental impact statement should indicate those considerations, including factors not related to environmental quality, that are likely to be relevant to a decision.

(2) The RFO is to establish the format and content of each document giving full consideration to the guidance and requirements of the CEQ regulations. The NRCS technical service center director is to provide guidance and concurrence on the format and content if the NRCS state conservationist is the RFO. The results of scoping are to determine the content of the EA or the EIS and the amount of detail needed to analyze the impacts.

(3) In addition to the minimum requirements of the CEQ regulations (40 CFR 1502.10), environmental assessments and environmental impact statements are to include—

(i) A brief description of public participation activities of agencies, groups, and individuals during the environmental evaluation;

(ii) A description of the hazard potential of each alternative, including an explanation of the rationale for dam classification and the risk of dam failure from overtopping for other causes;

(iii) Information identifying any approved regional plans for water resource management in the study area (40 CFR 1506.2(d)) and a statement on whether the proposed project is consistent with such plans;

(iv) All Federal permits, licenses, and other entitlements that must be obtained (40 CFR 1502.25(b)); and

(v) A brief description of major environmental problems, conflicts, and disagreements among groups and agencies and how they were resolved. Unresolved conflicts and the NRCS's proposal for resolving the disagreements before the project is implemented are to be summarized.

(4) Letters of comment and responses. (40 CFR 1503.4, 1502.9(b)) Letters of comment that were received and the responses to these comments are to appended to the final EIS. Opposing views and other substantive comments that were not adequately discussed in the draft EIS are to be incorporated in the final EIS.

(5) Appendix. The RFO may use an appendix to an EA or EIS. If an appendix is too voluminous to be circulated with the EIS, the RFO is to make it available on request. If an appendix is included it is to—

(i) Meet the requirements of 40 CFR 1502.18;

(ii) Identify any methodologies used (40 CFR 1502.24) and make explicit reference to other sources relied on for conclusions; and

(iii) Briefly describe the relationship between the benefit-cost analysis and any analyses of unquantified environmental impacts, values, and amenities. “For purposes of complying with the Act, the weighing of the merits or drawbacks of the various alternatives need not be displayed in a monetary cost benefit and should not be when these are important qualitative considerations.” (40 CFR 1502.23).

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§650.12   NRCS decisionmaking.

(a) General. The purpose of these procedures is to insure that environmental information is provided to decision makers in a timely manner. The NEPA process is a part of NRCS decisionmaking. The RFO is to insure that the policies and purposes of NEPA and CEQ regulations are complied with in NRCS decisionmaking by:

(1) Including in all decision documents and supporting environmental documents a discussion of all alternatives considered in the decision. Alternatives to be considered in reaching a decision will be available to the public.

(2) Submitting relevant environmental documents, comments, and responses with other decision documents through the review process.

(3) Including in the record of formal rulemaking or adjudicatory proceedings relevent environmental documents, comments and responses.

(4) Providing for pre- and post-project monitoring (40 CFR 1505.2(c), 1505.3) and evaluation in representative projects to insure that planning and evaluation procedures are performed according to sound criteria.

(b) Decision points in NRCS-assisted projects. NRCS administers programs that may have a significant effect on the human environment. Program procedures incorporate provisions for compliance with NEPA and for providing environmental information to the public, other agencies, and decision makers in a timely manner. NRCS provides technical and financial assistance for projects under the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention and the Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) programs. These usually require the preparation of project EA's or EIS's. The major decisionmaking points and their relation to NEPA compliance are as follows:

(1) For Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention projects:

(i) Application for assistance by the sponsoring local organization (SLO).

(ii) A preauthorization report identifying goals, alternatives, and effects of alternatives (including environmental impacts) prepared by the RFO and submitted to the applicant for decision. It is circulated to local, State, and Federal agencies and public comment is solicited. A decision is made to stop planning assistance or to develop a watershed plan.

(iii) Granting of planning authorization by the Administrator. The RFO must provide an evaluation of the potential environmental impacts to obtain the authorization.

(iv) A watershed agreement between the SLO and NRCS. The agreement is based on a completed watershed plan and associated environmental documents, which have been adequately reviewed within NRCS.

(v) A project agreement between the SLO and the RFO executed after the NEPA process is complete and the watershed plan has been approved and final plans and specifications have been developed.

(2) For RC&D measure plans:

(i) A request for assistance (measure proposal) is reviewed by the RC&D council to insure that the proposal is in accordance with the RC&D area plan. The proposal is then referred to NRCS.

(ii) A preliminary report is prepared by the RFO to identify goals, alternatives, and effects (including environmental impacts). The report is submitted to the sponsor for review. The sponsor may then apply to NRCS for planning assistance for measures considered in the preliminary report.

(iii) An authorization for planning assistance is granted by the RFO.

(iv) The RC&D measure plan is signed by the applicant and the RFO after the preparation and review of the measure plan and environmental documents.

(v) A project agreement is signed between the applicant and the RFO after the NEPA process is complete, the measure plan has been approved, and final plans and specifications have been prepared.

(c) Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Record of decision The RFO is to prepare a concise record of decision (ROD) for actions requiring an EIS. The record of decision is to be prepared and signed by the RFO following the 30-day administrative action period initiated by the EPA's publication of the notice of availability of the final EIS in the Federal Register. It is to serve as the public record of decision as described in 40 CFR 1505.2 of the CEQ regulations. The ROD is to be distributed to all who provided substantive comments on the draft EIS and all others who request it. A notice of availability of the ROD will be published in the Federal Register and local newspaper(s) serving the project area. The RFO may choose to publish the entire ROD.

(d) Environmental Assessments and Finding of No Significant Impact (FNSI)—(1) EA's. If the EA indicates that the proposed action is not a major Federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment, the RFO is to prepare a finding of no significant impact (FNSI).

(2) Availability of the FNSI (40 CFR 1501.4(e)(2)). In accordance with CEQ regulations at 40 CFR 1501.4(e)(2), NRCS shall make the EA/FNSI available for public review for thirty days in the following instances: The proposed action is, or closely similar to, one which normally requires the preparation of an EIS as defined by NRCS NEPA implementing regulations at §650.7, or the nature of the action is one without precedent. When availability for public review for thirty days is not required, NRCS will involve the public in the preparation of the EA/FONSI and make the EA/FONSI available for public review in accordance with CEQ regulations at 40 CFR 1501.4(b) and 1506.6.

(e) Changes in actions. When it appears that a project or other action needs to be changed, the RFO will perform an environmental evaluation of the authorized action to determine whether a supplemental NEPA analysis is necessary before making a change.

[44 FR 50579, Aug. 29, 1979, as amended at 73 FR 35886, June 25, 2008]

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§650.13   Review and comment.

In addition to the requirements of 40 CFR 1503, 1506.10 and 1506.11, NRCS will take the following steps in distributing EIS's for review and comment:

(a) Draft EIS's. Five copies of the draft EIS are to be filed by the RFO with the Office of Environmental Review, A-104, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C. At the same time, the RFO is to send copies of the draft EIS to the following:

(1) Other Federal agencies. The regional office of EPA and other agencies that have jurisdiction by law or special expertise with respect to any environmental effect, other Federal agencies (including appropriate field and regional offices), and affected Indian tribes.

(2) State and local agencies. OMB Circular No. A-95 (Revised), through its system of State and areawide clearinghouses, provides a means for obtaining the views of State and local environmental agencies that can assist in the preparation and review of EIS's

(3) Organizations, groups, and individuals. A copy of the draft EIS is to be sent to the appropriate official of each organization or group and each individual of the interested public (§650.9(d)(3)(i)) and to others as requested. A charge may be made for multiple copy requests.

(b) Time period for comment. The time period for review ends 45 days after the date EPA publishes the notice of public availability of the draft in the Federal Register. A 15-day-extension of time for review and comment is to be considered by the RFO when such requests are submitted in writing. If neither comments nor a request for an extension is received at the end of the 45-day period, it is to be presumed that the agency or party from whom comments were requested has no comments to make.

(c) News releases. In addition to the notice of availability published in the Federal Register by EPA, the RFO is to announce the availability of the draft EIS in one or more newspapers serving the area.

(d) Revising a draft EIS. If significant changes in the proposed action are made as a result of comments on the draft EIS, a revised draft EIS may be necessary. The revised draft EIS is to be recirculated for comment in the same manner as a draft EIS.

(e) Final EIS's. After the review period for the draft EIS, the RFO is to prepare a final EIS, making adjustments where necessary by taking into consideration and responding to significant comments and opposing viewpoints received on the draft EIS. The following steps are to be taken in filing and distributing the final EIS:

(1) Letters of comment are to be appended to the final EIS. If numerous repetitive responses are received, summaries of the repetitive comments and a list of the groups or individuals who commented may be appended in lieu of the actual letter.

(2) The RFO is to send five copies of the final EIS to EPA's Office of Environmental Review, and a copy of the final EIS to each State and Federal agency, organization, group, and individual who commented on the draft EIS. Single copy requests for copies of the final EIS will be provided without charge. A charge may be made for multiple copy requests.

(3) During the 30-day administrative action period noted in §650.12(c), NRCS will make its final EIS available to the public (40 CFR 1506.10).

(f) Supplements to EIS's. (1) If NRCS determines that it is necessary to clarify or amplify a point of concern raised after the final EIS is filed, appropriate clarification or amplification is to be sent to EPA with information copies furnished to those who received copies of the final EIS. The waiting periods do not apply.

(2) If the RFO determines that the final EIS or supplement to the original EIS previously filed becomes inadequate because of a major change in the plan for the proposed action that significantly affects the quality of the human environment, a new EIS is to be prepared, filed, and distributed as described in this section.

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