Water Pollution:

More EPA Action Needed to Improve the Quality of Heavily Polluted Waters

RCED-89-38: Published: Jan 6, 1989. Publicly Released: Jan 13, 1989.

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In response to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Region X to determine: (1) how well EPA and the states implemented Clean Water Act requirements to clean up rivers that did not meet water quality standards after construction of treatment plants; and (2) what actions EPA and Oregon took to set stricter pollution limits on the Tualatin and South Umpqua Rivers.

GAO found that: (1) many states and EPA did not develop total maximum daily loads (TMDL) for many of the nation's most polluted waters; (2) EPA did not track development and implementation of TMDL for individual water segments or TMDL effectiveness in meeting state water quality standards; (3) state officials did not plan to set TMDL for water-quality-limited segments beyond their existing plans because they preferred to use the funds to implement 1987 legislative water quality requirements; (4) although limited budgets and increased water pollution control requirements imposed difficulties on EPA and states, TMDL requirements provided a comprehensive approach to resolving all water pollution problems; (5) setting maximum levels could help to identify more effective and cost-efficient cleanup alternatives; (6) as a result of a consent decree, Oregon initiated actions to develop TMDL for 11 bodies of water and for 1 pollutant for the Tualatin River; and (7) Oregon planned to set TMDL for the remaining pollutant in the Tualatin River by the end of the year, and TMDL for the Umpqua River and eight other bodies of water by June 1993.

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 give a greater sense of direction to implementing the Clean Water Act's TMDL requirements, the Administrator, EPA, should work with the states to set time frames, recognizing the priorities imposed by the Water Quality Act of 1987 requirements and budget resources, for developing TMDL on their water-quality-limited segments. For those states that do not set or meet their TMDL time frames, EPA should set time frames for EPA regions to begin developing TMDL.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Office of Water has issued guidance that includes setting time frames and priorities for developing TMDL in water-quality-limited segments. However, EPA did not set time frames for EPA regions to begin developing TMDL for states that do not set or meet their own time frames.

    Recommendation: To give a greater sense of direction to implementing the Clean Water Act's TMDL requirements, the Administrator, EPA, should require that the planned Water Body Tracking System incorporate information on the requirements of section 303(d) to ensure that TMDL are developed and action taken to clean up waters that are still below the standards. The system should include, for example, information on waters which have been designated as water-quality-limited, whether TMDL have been set, the time frames for developing TMDL, and whether water quality standards have been met after implementing TMDL.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has revised its Water Body Tracking System to include information on section 303(d) requirements. However, one of the key elements, time frames for developing TMDL, was not included. An EPA official indicated that time frames will not be added to the system for the near period.

    Recommendation: To give a greater sense of direction to implementing the Clean Water Act's TMDL requirements, the Administrator, EPA, should include in the National Water Quality Inventory information on the development, implementation, and effectiveness of TMDL in meeting state water quality standards for water-quality-limited segments. Using this information, EPA can then report to Congress on the status of actions to ensure that the nation's waters are cleaned up.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In the 1990 Agency Operating Guidance and the Guidelines for the Preparation of the 1990 State Water Quality Assessment (305(b)) Report, the states were asked by EPA to include their revised and updated lists of impaired waters as part of the 305(b) reporting cycle. EPA intends to reflect this information in the EPA National Water Quality Inventory Report to Congress.

    Recommendation: To give a greater sense of direction to implementing the Clean Water Act's TMDL requirements, the Administrator, EPA, should provide case study examples, such as the Dillon Reservoir, to EPA regions and the states, to assist them in developing TMDL and evaluating trade-off strategies for implementing TMDL.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to EPA, case study documentation of innovative TMDL, such as the Dillon Reservoir, will be included in the updated program guidance being developed by the Office of Water. Program guidance issued by the Office of Water did not include case study examples.

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