Drinking Water Research:

Better Planning Needed to Link Needs and Resources

T-RCED-00-15: Published: Oct 20, 1999. Publicly Released: Oct 20, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) drinking water research program, focusing on: (1) a comparison of EPA's budget requests for drinking water research during fiscal years 1997 through 2000 with: (a) the amounts authorized for such purposes by the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996; and (b) the amounts estimated by EPA to be needed to support the regulations and regulatory determinations required under the amendments; (2) the views of stakeholders--those involved with supplying and ensuring the safety of drinking water--regarding the likelihood that EPA will be able to complete the research necessary to support new regulations and regulatory decisions over the next 10 years and the potential consequences if the research is not completed; and (3) an assessment of EPA's drinking water research plans, including the tasks, projected funding, and anticipated accomplishments, to support the development of new regulations and regulatory decisions over the next 10 years.

GAO noted that: (1) for fiscal years 1997 through 2000, EPA annually requested millions of dollars less than Congress authorized for drinking water research and regulatory development in the 1996 amendments; however, the gap has narrowed recently; (2) according to EPA officials, the agency's annual budget requests reflect the level of resources that agency officials believe is needed to fulfill EPA's mission and program responsibilities, within the planning ceilings and policy directives provided by the Office of Management and Budget; (3) but there is no overall estimate of resource needs for drinking water with which to compare EPA's annual budget requests because the agency does not generally prepare estimates of the total resources needed to carry out multiyear research programs; (4) stakeholders expressed concerns about the adequacy of the research for the upcoming regulations on: (a) arsenic; and (b) microbial pathogens, disinfectants (used to treat drinking water), and disinfection by-products, particularly the adequacy of research regarding health effects and the analytical methods used to detect contaminants; (5) while EPA officials acknowledge that some high-priority research projects will not be completed in time for these regulations, they believe that the available research will be sufficient to support the regulations with sound science; (6) according to the stakeholders, the potential consequences of not having adequate research to support upcoming regulations could be significant; (7) EPA has prepared detailed research plans that identify the specific tasks it needs to complete in order to support the upcoming regulations on arsenic and microbial pathogens, disinfectants, and disinfection by-products; (8) however, EPA has not completed research plans for other significant portions of its regulatory workload, including determinations on contaminants that are candidates for regulation and the review and revision of existing drinking water standards; (9) moreover, while the plans it has prepared specify research tasks, projected accomplishments, and expected completion dates, EPA has not identified the resources that are required to implement the plans and does not have an effective system for tracking the progress of ongoing research in relation to the plans; and (10) as a result, it is difficult to ascertain whether the research has been adequately funded or will be available in time to support the development of new regulations and regulatory determinations.

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