Drinking Water:

Spending Constraints Could Affect States' Ability to Implement Increasing Program Requirements

RCED-00-199: Published: Aug 31, 2000. Publicly Released: Sep 20, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the amounts of funding available and expended for implementing the states' drinking water programs, focusing on: (1) how the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) budget requests for the states' implementation of their drinking water programs compare with the amounts authorized and estimated to be needed; (2) how much the states have spent since the passage of the 1996 amendments to implement these programs and how the expenditures compare with the estimated needs; (3) what effects federal funding levels have had, and may have in the future, on the states' ability to implement their programs; and (4) what existing practices have the potential to help the states implement their drinking water programs more effectively and efficiently.

GAO noted that: (1) in its budget requests for fiscal years 1998 through 2000, EPA requested about 94 percent of the $100 million authorized annually by the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996 for supervision grants to the states and tribes; (2) for the same fiscal years, EPA requested, on average, 80 percent of the amounts authorized to capitalize the states' revolving loan fund for drinking water; (3) if the states had made maximum use of set-asides from the revolving fund, EPA's requested appropriations would have provided a total of $308 million in fiscal year (FY) 1999 and $318 million in FY 2000 to help the states to meet their responsibilities under the drinking water program, which include overseeing water systems' compliance with treatment and testing requirements, conducting inspections, and taking enforcement action, when necessary; (4) these amounts, when combined with required matching funds from the states, would have exceeded the annual needs estimated by the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators; (5) however, information provided by EPA shows that the states generally have not set aside nearly as much money from the revolving loan fund for program implementation as they could have, in part because doing so would have diverted funds from needed infrastructure improvements; (6) according to GAO's survey, the amounts of federal funding available for fiscal years 1997 through 1999 had less of an impact on the states' ability to implement their drinking water programs than did the effects of state-imposed spending constraints; (7) over 75 percent of the states reported that their staffing levels in FY 1999 were inadequate to meet the act's requirements in effect through that year; (8) according to state program managers, if this situation continues, it could eventually lead to more compliance problems and a larger enforcement workload, especially among small water systems, which make up the overwhelming majority of water systems; (9) over 90 percent of the surveyed states predicted that their staffing levels would be less than adequate in the future as a number of new program requirements and complex contaminant regulations take effect; (10) program officials in the eight states GAO contacted cited some management practices that could increase the efficiency of program implementation; and (11) EPA officials pointed to new requirements that may increase efficiency, including those designed to assess water sources for contamination and improve the ability of water systems to comply with drinking water regulations, but it could take years to realize the benefits.

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