Rural Water Infrastructure:

Improved Coordination and Funding Processes Could Enhance Federal Efforts to Meet Needs in the U.S.-Mexico Border Region

GAO-10-126: Published: Dec 18, 2009. Publicly Released: Jan 19, 2010.

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A serious problem for U.S. communities along the U.S.-Mexico border is the lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation systems. Inadequate systems can pose risks to human health and the environment, including the risk of waterborne diseases. Numerous federal programs provide grants, loans, or other assistance to rural U.S. communities, including those in the border region, for drinking water and wastewater projects. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to determine (1) the amount of federal funding provided to rural U.S. communities in the border region for drinking water and wastewater systems and (2) the effectiveness of federal efforts to meet the water and wastewater needs in the region. GAO analyzed agency financial data; reviewed statutes, regulations, policies, and procedures; and interviewed federal, state, local, and private sector officials.

Seven federal agencies--the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps), Economic Development Administration (EDA), the Indian Health Service (IHS), and the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation)--obligated at least $1.4 billion for drinking water and wastewater projects to assist communities in the U.S.-Mexico border region from fiscal years 2000 through 2008. USDA and EPA obligated 78 percent, or about $1.1 billion, of the total $1.4 billion--with USDA obligating 37 percent, or $509 million, and EPA obligating 41 percent, or $568 million. Agencies provided assistance for a variety of drinking water and wastewater activities, such as constructing or improving treatment facilities and installing distribution lines. For example, of the $509 million total, USDA obligated about $502 million to public utilities or similar entities for construction of or improvements to water and wastewater infrastructure. It obligated over $7 million to individuals in the border region for household projects, such as repairs to indoor plumbing. Federal efforts to meet drinking water and wastewater needs in the border region have been ineffective because most federal agencies (1) have not comprehensively assessed the needs in the region, (2) lack coordinated policies and processes, and (3) in some cases have not complied with statutory requirements and agency regulations. Although federal agencies have assembled some data and conducted limited studies of drinking water and wastewater conditions in the border region, the resulting patchwork of data does not provide a comprehensive assessment of the region's needs. Without such an assessment, federal agencies cannot target resources toward the most urgent needs or provide assistance to communities that do not have the technical and financial resources to initiate a proposal for assistance. In contrast, IHS has collected data on water and wastewater conditions for each tribal reservation. As a result, the agency can select projects that target the greatest need. In addition, although some federal agencies recognize the importance of a collaborative and coordinated process to increase program effectiveness, agencies' policies and processes are generally incompatible or not collaborative with those of other agencies. For example, most federal programs require separate documentation to meet the same requirement and the agencies do not consistently coordinate in selecting projects. As a result, applicants face significant administrative burdens and project completion can be delayed. Moreover, GAO found that some agencies do not always meet the requirements stipulated in federal statutes and agency regulations concerning how they are to determine the eligibility of applicants or projects and how they are to prioritize funds. For example, USDA and HUD do not ensure that recipients' use of targeted funds intended for use in the border region complies with statutory requirements for establishing project priorities in the border region. Finally, the Corps has not established any guidance to ensure funds are targeted to those projects with the greatest need.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: In order to better address the needs of the region, Congress may wish to consider establishing an interagency mechanism or process, such as a task force on water and wastewater infrastructure in the border region that includes the federal agencies that administer programs in the region. Congress may wish to direct any task force, in partnership with state and local officials, to provide periodic status reports regarding the progress made in developing this strategic and coordinated approach.

    Agency Affected: Congress

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: In order to better address the needs of the region, Congress may wish to consider establishing an interagency mechanism or process, such as a task force on water and wastewater infrastructure in the border region that includes the federal agencies that administer programs in the region. Congress may wish to direct any task force, in partnership with state and local officials, to evaluate the degree to which there are gaps in the programs and what resources or authority would be needed to address them.

    Agency Affected: Congress

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: In order to better address the needs of the region, Congress may wish to consider establishing an interagency mechanism or process, such as a task force on water and wastewater infrastructure in the border region that includes the federal agencies that administer programs in the region. Congress may wish to direct any task force, in partnership with state and local officials, to, in light of these needs, establish a framework for compatible and coordinated policies and procedures across relevant agencies, such as a coordinated process for the selection of projects, and standardized applications and environmental review and engineering requirements the extent possible.

    Agency Affected: Congress

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: In order to better address the needs of the region, Congress may wish to consider establishing an interagency mechanism or process, such as a task force on water and wastewater infrastructure in the border region that includes the federal agencies that administer programs in the region. Congress may wish to direct any task force, in partnership with state and local officials, to leverage collective resources to identify needs within the border region--including the identification of the water infrastructure status within colonias, and the extent to which the lack of institutional capacity has impeded communities within the border region from seeking assistance.

    Agency Affected: Congress

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To ensure that funding established to meet the needs of colonias is used in ways that are consistent with statutory and regulatory requirements, if the Corps continues to assist communities with water and wastewater related activities through the colonia program, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop eligibility criteria and a standard process to review and select activities for funding that targets the assistance to those with the greatest need. The process should comply with all applicable regulations and include verification of eligibility.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To ensure that funding established to meet the needs of colonias is used in ways that are consistent with statutory and regulatory requirements, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development should ensure that state agencies provide Colonia Set-aside funds only for projects that benecolonias, as defined by federal statute, and to promptly establish guidance to ensure states follow a method of distribution that results in the prioritization of Colonia Set-aside funds to those colonias with the great need. Further, the Secretary should monitor the states' uses of all Colonia Set-aside funds as distinct component of CDBG monitoring.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To ensure that funding established to meet the needs of colonias is used in ways that are consistent with statutory and regulatory requirements, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct Rural Development to revise its process of determining eligibility to ensure that the agency only provides Section 306C colonia funds for projects that benefit colonias, as defined by federal statute, and to revise its priority process to better target limited funds to those projects meeting the statutory preference criteria.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: Congress may also wish to consider reemphasizing the priorities for use of Colonia Set-aside funds by specifically requiring HUD to make these funds available only for grants related to the three existing statutory purposes, and by directing HUD to report annually to Congress on the purposes for which such funds were used and the steps it is taking to ensure that the funds are being used for require purposes.

    Agency Affected: Congress

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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