The Nation's Water:

Key Unanswered Questions About the Quality of Rivers and Streams

PEMD-86-6: Published: Sep 19, 1986. Publicly Released: Oct 20, 1986.

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GAO reviewed and combined the findings of several studies on issues affecting national water quality policies and assessed the technical strength of their methodologies, focusing on: (1) the present condition of the nation's water quality; (2) how the water quality has changed over time; (3) what pollution sources degrade water quality; and (4) the effect of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Construction Grants Program on water quality.

GAO found that: (1) some of the nation's water is of fairly good quality, while other water remains polluted; (2) pollution control efforts have reduced the discharge of conventional water pollutants from sources of focused pollution; (3) there was no change in water quality for most of the rivers examined; (4) the water quality in many rivers and streams has remained the same despite population and economic growth; (5) sources of diffused water pollution may degrade more stream-miles than sources of focused pollution; and (6) although the Construction Grants Program has reduced the discharge of pollutants from wastewater treatment plants, there is no data on its effect on in-stream pollutants. GAO also found that the effect on water quality is difficult to determine due to: (1) the absence of any analysis of a national sample of projects funded by the program; (2) the lack of data and analysis directly linking the funding of construction grants to in-stream water quality; and (3) the lack of information and analysis to rule out explanations for changes in water quality associated with non-point-source and point-source pollution.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA initiated steps which will respond to the GAO recommendations; however, they were initiated prior to report issuance.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should perform methodologically sound research that will allow a comparison of the cost-effectiveness of the Construction Grants Program with other abatement possibilities, such as industrial point-source control and non-point-source abatement programs.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA initiated steps which will respond to the GAO recommendations; however, they were initiated prior to report issuance.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should encourage the states to use multiple measures and standardized objective data in preparing information for future section 305(b) and States' Evaluation of Progress reports. The states might identify the sources of critical data, indicating, for example, whether their data were derived from objective physical, chemical, or biological measures, subjective judgments by experts, or a combination of these.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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