Safe and Clean Water

Posted on April 22, 2015
Safe, clean water is essential for human and environmental health. However, our supply of clean water is at risk from pollution and droughts, like the current one in California. And, even when clean water is available at the source, aging infrastructure may affect water quality or supply. On the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, the WatchBlog directs attention to some of our work on water issues. Freshwater Shortages and Availability The nation's water bodies have long supplied Americans with abundant freshwater. However, in May 2014, we found that water managers and experts are concerned about issues like:
  • how population growth could strain water supplies;
  • the lack of information on water availability and use; and
  • the effects of climate change and extreme weather events, including droughts and floods.
The first two issues are longstanding concerns, remaining largely unchanged since our earlier report in 2003. We also reported that water shortages are expected to continue into the future. In particular, 40 of 50 state water managers we surveyed expected shortages in some portion of their states, as shown below. We also found that uncertainty about economic growth and land use complicates state efforts to plan for these shortages.


(Excerpted from GAO-14-430)

Pollution and the Clean Water Act Our lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water may be at risk for pollution from a variety of sources. The figure below shows how water bodies may become polluted, including
  • “point sources,” single, identifiable factors that introduce pollutants to specific areas; and
  • “nonpoint sources,” more variable factors that introduce pollutants over larger areas.


(Excerpted from GAO-14-80)

Under the Clean Water Act:
  • States must establish water quality standards.
  • States must develop pollutant budgets, known as “total maximum daily loads” (TMDL)—the maximum amount of each pollutant that a body of water can contain and still comply with water quality standards.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and states must issue permits for point sources of pollution and provide incentives to reduce nonpoint source pollution.
In December 2013, we concluded that more than 40 years after passing the Clean Water Act, many of the nation’s bodies of water are still polluted, and the goals of the act are not being met. For example, while states have completed more than 50,000 TMDL documents—outlining the waters at risk for pollution, the sources of pollution, and how to address and monitor the risk—many didn’t demonstrate that they would achieve water quality standards, based on water resource experts' reviews of a sample of the documents. Water Infrastructure Even when clean water is available at the source, aging infrastructure may affect water quality or supply. In March 2015, we testified about efforts to maintain and upgrade the nation’s aging and deteriorating drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. EPA estimated that, nationwide, infrastructure repairs and replacement will cost
  • $384 billion (in 2011 dollars) for drinking water systems, and
  • $298 billion (in 2008 dollars) for wastewater systems.
While many rural communities face significant challenges financing upgrades to water systems, we found 7 federal agencies provide funding or technical assistance to help. Interested in more? Check out our Key Issues pages on managing natural resources, water quality, and the energy-water nexus.