Key Issues > Water Quality
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Water Quality

Safe and clean water is necessary for human and environmental health and economic well-being. Over the last 40 years, the nation’s water quality and drinking water have improved, but threats to water quality and safety remain. For example, EPA and states have identified almost 39,000 water bodies nationwide that are considered impaired by pollutants so that they do not meet water quality standards set by the states or EPA.

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EPA has broad responsibility for ensuring clean and safe water through implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and the Clean Water Act (CWA).

  • Under the authorities in SDWA, EPA establishes legally enforceable standards that generally limit the levels of specific contaminants in drinking water that can adversely affect public health. Public water systems must meet these health-based requirements and comply with monitoring, reporting, and other requirements established by EPA and responsible states. A key information source for EPA regarding water system compliance with SDWA is data provided by the states.

  • Under the structure of the CWA, EPA and states share responsibility for protecting water quality. States play a key role in managing water pollution from diffuse, or nonpoint sources—such as runoff from farms or construction sites—which is the leading cause of impairment of the nation’s waters. In addition, under the CWA, EPA awards federal funds to states to implement nonpoint source management programs. EPA also implements regulatory programs to reduce pollution from point sources, such as industrial plants, wastewater plants and municipal stormwater runoff. These sources are regulated through National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits and technological and water-quality based limits in those permits.

  • EPA has also taken on large-scale watershed restoration efforts, such as those in the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lake regions. These efforts involve protecting aquatic ecosystems and wetlands in these important geographic areas.

  • The CWA and SDWA State Revolving Fund programs help states provide financing to address capital needs for building and upgrading wastewater and drinking water treatment systems and improving water quality.
Looking for our recommendations? Click on any report to find each associated recommendation and its current implementation status.

Nonpoint Source Water Pollution:

Greater Oversight and Additional Data Needed for Key EPA Water Program
GAO-12-335:
Published: May 31, 2012. Publicly Released: Jul 2, 2012.

Chesapeake Bay:

Restoration Effort Needs Common Federal and State Goals and Assessment Approach
GAO-11-802:
Published: Sep 15, 2011. Publicly Released: Sep 15, 2011.

Drinking Water:

Safe Drinking Water Act:

EPA Should Improve Implementation of Requirements on Whether to Regulate Additional Contaminants
GAO-11-254:
Published: May 27, 2011. Publicly Released: Jul 12, 2011.

Wastewater Infrastructure Financing:

Stakeholder Views on a National Infrastructure Bank and Public-Private Partnerships
GAO-10-728:
Published: Jun 30, 2010. Publicly Released: Jul 30, 2010.

More Reports

Clean Water Act:

Changes Needed If Key EPA Program Is to Help Fulfill the Nation's Water Quality Goals
GAO-14-80:
Published: Dec 5, 2013. Publicly Released: Jan 13, 2014.

Natural Resources and Environment:

Funding for 10 States' Programs Supported by Four Environmental Protection Agency Categorical Grants
GAO-13-504R:
Published: May 6, 2013. Publicly Released: May 21, 2013.

Water Quality:

EPA Faces Challenges in Addressing Damage Caused by Airborne Pollutants
GAO-13-39:
Published: Jan 24, 2013. Publicly Released: Feb 25, 2013.

Energy-Water Nexus:

Coordinated Federal Approach Needed to Better Manage Energy and Water Tradeoffs
GAO-12-880:
Published: Sep 13, 2012. Publicly Released: Oct 15, 2012.

Water Pollution:

Oil and Gas:

Information on Shale Resources, Development, and Environmental and Public Health Risks
GAO-12-732:
Published: Sep 5, 2012. Publicly Released: Oct 9, 2012.

Mississippi River:

EPA Health Risk Assessments:

Oversight and Sustained Management Key to Overcoming Challenges
GAO-12-148T:
Published: Oct 6, 2011. Publicly Released: Oct 6, 2011.

Recovery Act:

Funds Supported Many Water Projects, and Federal and State Monitoring Shows Few Compliance Problems
GAO-11-608:
Published: Jun 29, 2011. Publicly Released: Jun 29, 2011.

Recovery Act:

Preliminary Observations on the Use of Funds for Clean and Drinking Water Projects
GAO-11-642T:
Published: May 4, 2011. Publicly Released: May 4, 2011.
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  • portrait of Alfredo Gomez
    • Alfredo Gomez
    • Acting Director, Natural Resources and Environment
    • gomezj@gao.gov
    • 202-512-3841