Drinking Water:

Unreliable State Data Limit EPA's Ability to Target Enforcement Priorities and Communicate Water Systems' Performance

GAO-11-381: Published: Jun 17, 2011. Publicly Released: Jul 19, 2011.

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The nation's drinking water is among the safest in the world, but contamination has occurred, causing illnesses and even deaths. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has authorized most states, territories, and tribes to take primary responsibility for ensuring that community water systems provide safe water. EPA needs complete and accurate data on systems' compliance with SDWA to conduct oversight. GAO was asked to assess the (1) quality of the state data EPA uses to measure compliance with health and monitoring requirements of the act and the status of enforcement efforts, (2) ways in which data quality could affect EPA's management of the drinking water program, and (3) actions EPA and the states have been taking to improve data quality. GAO analyzed EPA audits of state data done in 2007, 2008, and 2009, and surveyed EPA and state officials to obtain their views on factors that have affected data quality and steps that could improve it.

The data states reported to EPA for measuring compliance with health and monitoring requirements of SDWA did not reliably reflect the number of health-based and monitoring violations that community water systems have committed or the status of enforcement actions. Using data from the 14 states EPA audited in 2009, GAO estimates that those 14 states did not report or inaccurately reported 26 percent of the health-based violations that should have been reported and 84 percent of the monitoring violations that should have been reported. GAO's findings were consistent with the results of prior EPA audits. In addition, according to EPA headquarters and regional officials GAO interviewed and surveyed, state-reported data underreported the percentage of water systems with violations against which the states have taken enforcement actions. Survey respondents and other officials reported that numerous factors contribute to errors in reported data on violations and enforcement, including inadequate training, staffing, and guidance, and inadequate funding to conduct those activities. Unreported health-based and monitoring violations and incomplete enforcement data limit EPA's ability to identify water systems with the most serious compliance problems and ensure that it is achieving its goal of targeting for enforcement those systems with the most serious compliance problems. Specifically, incomplete and inaccurate data on both violations and enforcement actions affect a scoring tool EPA and the states are using to rank systems for enforcement actions. In addition, unreliable data quality impedes EPA's ability to monitor and report progress toward a strategic objective of reducing exposure to contaminants in drinking water. For example, EPA's 2011 national program guidance contains a performance measure for the number and percentage of systems with certain repeated health-based violations, but EPA's ability to reliably use this type of measure requires complete and accurate data on violations. Because of unreported violations data, EPA may not be able to report accurate performance information on systems with these violations. EPA and the states have collaborated over many years to identify and address the causes of incomplete and inaccurate violations data, but those efforts have not been fully successful, according to EPA and state officials GAO surveyed. EPA's efforts have included (1) conducting audits--discontinued in 2010 because of funding constraints--to determine the completeness and accuracy of the violations data states reported to EPA, (2) establishing three work groups to address data management and quality, and (3) urging EPA regions and states to use data management tools the agency has developed. However, EPA has encouraged but not required that its regions or the states take specific actions that could improve data quality. EPA's 2010 drinking water strategy calls for, among other things, an increase in shared data between the agency and the states. EPA also plans to redesign its drinking water data system to provide it with greater access to, and oversight of, the states' determinations of SDWA violations. GAO is making recommendations to improve EPA's ability to oversee the states' implementation of SDWA and provide Congress and the public with more complete and accurate data on compliance and enforcement. EPA partially agreed with two of the recommendations, disagreed with one, and neither agreed nor disagreed with one. GAO believes that EPA needs to implement all of the recommendations to improve its ability to oversee SDWA.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • 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: To improve EPA's ability to oversee the states' implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act and provide Congress and the public with more complete and accurate information on compliance, the Administrator of EPA should resume data verification audits to routinely evaluate the quality of selected drinking water data on health-based and monitoring violations that the states provide to EPA. These audits should also evaluate the quality of data on the enforcement actions that states and other primacy agencies have taken to correct violations.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Open

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

    Recommendation: To improve EPA's ability to oversee the states' implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act and provide Congress and the public with more complete and accurate information on compliance, the Administrator of EPA should work with the states to establish a goal, or goals, for the completeness and accuracy of data on monitoring violations. In setting these goals, EPA may want to consider whether certain types of monitoring violations merit specific targets. For example, the agency may decide that a goal for the states to completely and accurately report when required monitoring was not done should differ from a goal for reporting when monitoring was done but not reported on time.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Open

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

    Recommendation: To improve EPA's ability to oversee the states' implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act and provide Congress and the public with more complete and accurate information on compliance, the Administrator of EPA should consider whether EPA's performance measures for community water systems could be constructed to more clearly communicate the aggregate public health risk posed by these systems' noncompliance with SDWA and progress in having those systems return to compliance in a timely manner.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Open

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

    Recommendation: To improve EPA's ability to oversee the states' implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act and provide Congress and the public with more complete and accurate information on compliance, the Administrator of EPA should work with the EPA regions and states to assess the progress made in implementing the steps called for by the 2008 action plan and the Director of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water's 2009 memorandum; identify the barriers that have prevented more widespread implementation of the action plan and memorandum; and develop and publish a strategy for overcoming those barriers.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    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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