Meeting the drinking water and wastewater needs of rural areas, particularly areas such as the U.S.-Mexico border region, can be difficult. More than 90 percent of public water supply systems and 70 percent of wastewater systems throughout the United States serve communities with populations fewer than 10,000, usually in rural areas. The lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation systems can pose risks to human health and the environment, including the risk of waterborne illnesses. In 2009, GAO found that seven federal agencies active in the border regionthe Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Indian Health Service, the Economic Development Administration (EDA), and the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamationobligated at least $1.4 billion from fiscal years 2000 through 2008 to fund numerous projects in the region.
Key federal agencies recognized more than a decade ago that coordinated policies and procedures would improve federal efforts to deliver water and wastewater systems to rural areas, including those in the U.S.-Mexico border region; however, overall these programs remain uncoordinated and fragmented, and their delivery continues to be inefficient and ineffective. The U.S.-Mexico border region is predominately rural in nature, and federal agencies can find it difficult to meet the needs of residents in this region. Specifically, the remoteness of some communities can make it challenging to identify residents in need of water and wastewater services, communities may not have the institutional capacity to identify solutions to address their water and wastewater needs, and rural areas typically lack adequate funds for constructing and upgrading water supply and wastewater treatment facilities. Overcoming differences in agency missions and cultures, as well as program differences resulting from separate mandates and project eligibility requirements, add to the complexity of meeting these communities' water and wastewater needs.
In December 2009, GAO found that federal efforts to meet drinking water and wastewater needs in the border region have been ineffective, in part, because most of the seven federal agencies that provide assistance have not comprehensively assessed the needs of the region. Federal agencies have assembled some data and conducted limited studies of drinking water and wastewater conditions in the border region, but the resulting patchwork of data does not provide a comprehensive assessment of the region's needs. Without a comprehensive needs assessment, federal agencies cannot target resources toward the most urgent needs or provide assistance to communities that do not have the technical or financial resources to initiate a proposal for assistance. Instead, GAO found that most federal programs generally provide funds to those communities with the ability to initiate projects and seek assistance, which may not be the ones with the greatest need. Only one agencythe Indian Health Servicehad collected data on water and wastewater conditions for each tribal reservation in the region, enabling it to select projects that target the greatest need.
In addition, GAO found that the key agencies have not developed coordinated policies and procedures for selecting water and wastewater projects, resulting in an administrative burden, duplication of efforts, and inefficient use of resources. Specifically, most programs have different applications and application processes for water or wastewater projects, different requirements for engineering and environmental reports, and different deadlines for submitting applications. Because most federal programs require separate documentation to meet similar requirements and the agencies do not consistently coordinate in selecting projects, applicants can experience increased costs and delays in project completion. For example, a public utility engineer in Texas said that one applicant trying to expand water service to a particular area paid $30,000 more in fees because the engineer had to complete two separate sets of engineering documentation for EPA and USDA. Also, because most federal programs have no process by which to coordinate and share information on projects they have selected for funding, GAO found examples where agencies made inefficient use of limited resources. For example, GAO found a case where HUD provided a utility in Hudspeth County, Texas, over $860,000 in grant funds from 2004 to 2006 to extend water distribution and waste collection lines for residents of a community. However, through September 2009, the distribution lines remained unused because the utility did not have enough water to serve the additional households. The utility intended to use funding from USDA to construct a new well, but the funding obligated by the agency was not enough to cover project costs. Three years after the HUD funds were provided to construct the distribution lines, the utility had not been able to obtain additional assistance from federal agencies to construct the well.
To improve program coordination for rural water and wastewater infrastructure in the U.S.-Mexico border region, GAO suggested in December 2009 that Congress may wish to consider requiring federal agencies to establish an interagency mechanism or process, such as a task force on water and wastewater infrastructure, in the border region. GAO also suggested that Congress could direct a group or task force to conduct certain activities. Specifically, GAO suggested that a task force, in partnership with state and local officials, should leverage collective resources to identify needs within the border region and establish compatible and coordinated polices across relevant agencies, such as a coordinated process for the selection of projects, and standardize applications, environmental review requirements, and engineering requirements to the extent possible. Such activities would help to ensure that a comprehensive needs assessment for the region is completed and that coordination in other areas occurs. Although such coordination and uniformity will not likely result in significant cost savings for the federal government, these activities, if implemented, could improve the effectiveness of federal water and wastewater programs and result in more efficient use of funds provided to the border region. Most of the cost savings would likely be realized by the communities and utilities that would benefit from federal agencies establishing a uniform application and coordinated funding cycles. While these actions have not yet been taken, a bill introduced in the House of Representatives in March 2010 would have established a Southwest Border Region Water Task Force with specific responsibilities such as assessing the water needs of communities in the region and reporting to Congress every 6 months on its progress.
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