Water Quality:

Better Data and Evaluation of Urban Runoff Programs Needed to Assess Effectiveness

GAO-01-679: Published: Jun 29, 2001. Publicly Released: Jul 10, 2001.

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers the contaminants in storm water runoff as a significant threat to water quality across the nation. Prompted by Congress, EPA has responded with various initiatives, including the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Storm Water Program, which requires more than 1,000 local governments to undertake storm water management programs. Those municipalities in Phase I of the program have been trying to reduce pollutants in storm water runoff for several years, and it is time to begin evaluating their efforts. EPA however, has not established measurable goals for this program, nor has it attempted to evaluate the program's effectiveness in reducing storm water pollution or to determine its cost. EPA attributes its inaction to inconsistent data reporting from municipalities, insufficient staff resources, and other competing priorities within the Office of Wastewater Management. Although municipalities report monitoring and cost data to EPA or state regulatory agencies annually, these agencies have not reviewed this information to determine whether it can be useful in determining the program's overall effectiveness or cost. GAO found that the reported cost information will be difficult to analyze unless EPA and its state partners set guidelines to elicit more standardized reporting. Better data on costs and program effectiveness are needed--especially in light of the Phase II program that will involve thousands more municipalities in 2003. EPA's planned research grant to the University of Alabama and its pilot project to analyze data from annual reports and develop baseline indicators is a step in the right direction and could point the way for a more comprehensive approach.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the agency's written response (dated June 29, 2005) to the report's recommendations, EPA published the Measurable Goals guidance in late 2001. This guidance establishes a range of options for communities and states to set and track municipal storm-water program performance. Under both the Phase I and Phase II programs, municipalities submit an annual report that details actions taken toward each established measurable goal. EPA continues to work with states and municipalities to improve and refine goals and measures during each five-year permit renewal cycle. EPA also tracks the storm-water program's performance through a set of measures established under GPRA and other related efforts.

    Recommendation: To determine the extent to which activities undertaken through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Storm Water Program are reducing pollutants in urban runoff and improving water quality, and the costs of this program to local governments, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water to establish measurable goals for the program.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the agency's written response (dated June 29, 2005) to the report's recommendations, in 2004, among other things, EPA funded a Water Quality Cooperative Agreement with the National Association of Flood and Storm Water Management Agencies (NAFSMA) to develop guidance for MS4s on options and considerations for funding storm-water programs. EPA expects that this work will provide municipalities with a structured approach to estimating and evaluating storm-water management funding needs. Also, in addition to publishing measurable goals guidance in 2001, EPA is developing a new permit compliance database (the Integrated Compliance Information System or ICIS) to replace the current Permit Compliance System (PCS). This new system, currently projected to go online in late 2005, will enhance the existing system and will track essential information about the NPDES storm-water program. Concurrent with ICIS, EPA is revising its data entry requirements for states and regions to enter information into ICIS. The system will utilize the latest in database technology, allowing for a more user friendly interface, simplified data input, and a more comprehensive analysis of the program.

    Recommendation: To determine the extent to which activities undertaken through the NPDES Storm Water Program are reducing pollutants in urban runoff and improving water quality, and the costs of this program to local governments, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water to establish guidelines for obtaining consistent and reliable data from local governments with Phase I permits, including data on the effects of the program and the costs to these governments.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the agency's written response (dated June 29, 2005) to the report's recommendations, EPA funded a Water Quality Cooperative Agreement with the University of Alabama and the Center for Watershed Protection to compile and analyze Phase I MS4 sampling data as a way to better characterize pollutants in municipal storm-water. This study provides a useful baseline from which EPA can evaluate the effects of the Phase I MS4 storm-water program.

    Recommendation: To determine the extent to which activities undertaken through the NPDES Storm Water Program are reducing pollutants in urban runoff and improving water quality, and the costs of this program to local governments, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water to review the data submitted by these permittees to determine whether program goals are being met and to identify the costs of the program.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the agency's written response (dated June 29, 2005) to the report's recommendations, since 2001, EPA has increased its commitment to the storm-water program, increasing the contractor dollars and HQ permitting staff allocated to implement and oversee the program. Similarly, EPA HQ compliance and enforcement efforts have increased with recent storm-water initiatives aimed at increasing inspection and oversight of MS4s.

    Recommendation: To determine the extent to which activities undertaken through the NPDES Storm Water Program are reducing pollutants in urban runoff and improving water quality, and the costs of this program to local governments, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water to assess whether the agency has allocated sufficient resources to oversee and monitor the program.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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