Water Quality:

Inconsistent State Approaches Complicate Nation's Efforts to Identify Its Most Polluted Waters

GAO-02-186: Published: Jan 11, 2002. Publicly Released: Feb 11, 2002.

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes that more than 20,000 bodies of water throughout the country are too polluted to meet water quality standards. States use different approaches to identify impaired waters. This variation has led not only to inconsistencies in the listing of impaired waters but also to difficulties in identifying the total number of impaired waters nationwide and the total number of total maximum daily loads (TMDL) needed to bring such waters up to standards. Under the Clean Water Act and its regulations, EPA has given the states some flexibility to develop listing approaches that are tailored to their circumstances. However, some of the approaches have no appropriate scientific basis. States apply a range of quality assurance procedures to ensure the quality of data used to make impairment decisions. Although states have long used quality assurance procedures for the data they collect directly, they have become increasingly vigilant about applying such procedures to data from other sources. Because of inconsistencies in states' approaches to identifying impaired waters, the information in EPA's database of impaired waters is of questionable reliability. The number of impaired waters cannot be compared from one state to the next, and EPA cannot reliably tally the number of TMDLs that must be completed nationwide. EPA's database also distorts the size of some of the states' impaired waters when they are mapped on EPA's website.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA developed new guidance to address this concern. Specifically, the guidance provides information on how states should handle shared waters for the purposes of developing their 303(d) lists. The guidance was published on July 21, 2003, and is entitled "Guidance for 2004 Assessment, Listing, and Reporting Requirements Pursuant to Sections 303(d) and 305(b) of the Clean Water Act; TMDL-01-03." The guidance will be implemented through the deadline for states' submissions of their 2004, 303(d) lists and 305(b) reports of April 1, 2004. According to EPA, use of the guidance will continue past that date as EPA works with states to approve states' submissions and use them effectively in the ongoing TMDL program.

    Recommendation: To provide greater consistency in the way states list their impaired waters, the Administrator, EPA, should work with the states to help resolve discrepancies that arise in the listing of interstate waters. In pursuing such a role, the agency could benefit from the activities of the nation's river basin commissions, which are already attempting to assist their states in making interstate listing decisions.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA developed guidance that addresses this concern. Specifically, the guidance describes how states can document the scientific and technical rationale for categorizing its waters and lists key elements that must be included in states' descriptions of their methodologies. The guidance was published on July 21, 2003, and is entitled "Guidance for 2004 Assessment, Listing, and Reporting Requirements Pursuant to Sections 303(d) and 305(b) of the Clean Water Act; TMDL-01-03."

    Recommendation: To provide greater consistency in the way states list their impaired waters, the Administrator, EPA, should provide clear guidance to the states on the information they should use to describe their methodologies for developing their section 303(d) lists.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA developed guidance that addresses this concern for use by both states and EPA regional offices. Specifically, the guidance provides criteria for determining good cause for removing waters from states' section 303(d) lists. The guidance was published on July 21, 2003, and is entitled "Guidance for 2004 Assessment, Listing, and Reporting Requirements Pursuant to Sections 303(d) and 305(b) of the Clean Water Act; TMDL-01-03."

    Recommendation: To provide greater consistency in the way states list their impaired waters, the Administrator, EPA, should work with the agency's regional offices to ensure a more consistent interpretation of the agency's policies on the criteria that states must meet to remove waters from their section 303(d) lists.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA developed new guidance that addresses these concerns. The guidance was published on July 21, 2003, and is entitled "Guidance for 2004 Assessment, Listing, and Reporting Requirements Pursuant to Sections 303(d) and 305(b) of the Clean Water Act; TMDL-01-03." The guidance will be implemented through the deadline for states' submissions of their 2004, 303(d) lists and 305(b) reports of April 1, 2004. According to EPA, use of the guidance will continue past that date as EPA works with states to approve states' submissions and use them effectively in the ongoing TMDL program. In addition, EPA published a document in March 2003, entitled Elements of a State Water Monitoring and Assessment Program, which recommends the basic elements of a state water monitoring program. EPA intends to use the document to encourage a long-term process of incremental improvement in monitoring programs.

    Recommendation: To provide greater consistency in the way states list their impaired waters, the Administrator, EPA, should provide additional guidance to the states on carrying out the key functions (including standard-setting, water quality monitoring, and data assessment) that influence how states identify the waters for their section 303(d) lists.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Alternative action addressed the substance of the recommendation.

    Recommendation: In addition, until EPA's Office of Water resolves problems relating to inaccurate and/or misleading data contained in its Watershed Assessment, Tracking, and Environmental Results database, the Administrator should direct that office to explain clearly and visibly to users of its impaired waters Web site the potential misinterpretations that may arise from its current presentation of these data.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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