Environmental Protection Agency:

Status of Efforts to Address Nonpoint Source Water Pollution through the Section 319 Program

GAO-16-697R: Published: Jul 14, 2016. Publicly Released: Jul 14, 2016.

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Jose A. Gomez
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gomezj@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

From fiscal years 2011 through 2014, the most recent years for which complete data were available, states awarded at least 3,080 projects under the section 319 program for addressing nonpoint source water pollution, which comes from such sources as runoff from farms, managed forests, and urban areas. Similar to what GAO found in May 2012, the two most common categories of nonpoint source water pollution targeted by these projects were agricultural runoff and urban and stormwater runoff. Specifically, about 55 percent of projects targeted agricultural runoff, and about 35 percent targeted urban and stormwater runoff. In its May 2012 report, GAO also found that states had funded section 319 projects designed primarily to implement indirect approaches (e.g., planning and education activities) to address nonpoint source water pollution more frequently than projects that supported more direct approaches (e.g., implementing conservation practices to reduce pollutants entering a water body). However, because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which administers the section 319 program, made changes to certain data fields that alter how it tracks project activities, GAO was unable to update this part of its 2012 analysis for projects awarded in fiscal years 2011 through 2014 for inclusion in this report.

EPA has taken several actions since GAO’s May 2012 report, in part to respond to GAO’s recommendations, which are intended to improve the implementation of its section 319 program, such as issuing updated guidance to EPA regional offices and states, but additional time is needed to assess the impact of actions that were taken. For example, in April 2013, EPA issued revised guidance for awarding section 319 grants to states to implement nonpoint source management programs and projects. The guidance was first applicable to grants awarded in fiscal year 2014, but some changes called for in the guidance were not completed until September 2015. The 2013 guidance updates previous guidance to EPA regional offices and states in four key areas: (1) state nonpoint source management program plans, (2) funding distribution, (3) reviews of states’ watershed-based plans, and (4) regional offices’ annual progress determinations. The 2013 guidance has the potential to benefit the section 319 program, but it does not directly address the recommendations GAO made in May 2012. For example, EPA developed a checklist that aligns with the intent of one of GAO’s recommendations—to provide additional guidance to EPA regional offices on how they are to fulfill their oversight responsibilities. However, EPA’s guidance does not provide specific instruction to EPA’s regional offices on how to review states’ plans for project feasibility and criteria to ensure that funded projects have characteristics reflecting the greatest likelihood of tangible water quality results, as GAO recommended. Further, given that some of the changes called for in the revised guidance were not completed until September 2015, not enough time has passed to assess its impacts.

Why GAO Did This Study

Nonpoint source water pollution, unlike pollution from industrial and sewage treatment plants, comes from many diffuse sources, including runoff from farms, managed forests, and urban areas. This runoff can carry harmful pollutants such as fertilizers and sediment from fields, toxins from abandoned mines, and oils from roads, into lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water. The Clean Water Act was passed by Congress in 1972 to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters. In 1987, Congress amended the act, adding section 319 to create a non-regulatory program through which EPA administers annual grants to help states develop and implement their own programs for managing nonpoint source water pollution. Under EPA’s section 319 program, states retain the primary role for addressing nonpoint source water pollution, which they do largely through voluntary means and financial incentives.

In May 2012, GAO found that through the section 319 program states have funded numerous projects to address various categories of pollution. GAO also found that states funded some projects that encountered preventable challenges, which can be avoided when states use more rigorous project selection processes. In the 2012 report, GAO made two recommendations intended to ensure that funds for addressing nonpoint source pollution achieved greater reductions in pollution. GAO was asked to assess the status of EPA’s section 319 program. In particular, this report examines (1) how many projects states have awarded under EPA's section 319 program in recent years and the types of pollution these projects were intended to address, and (2) what actions, if any, EPA has taken since 2012 to improve the oversight of its section 319 program. GAO reviewed EPA data for fiscal years 2011 through 2014 (the most recent data available), changes EPA made to the section 319 program since 2012, and EPA actions to improve oversight of the program.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is not making recommendations in this report.

For more information, contact Alfredo Gomez at 202-512-3841 or gomezj@gao.gov.

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