Further Implementation and Better Cost Data Needed to Determine Impact of EPA's Storm Water Program on Communities
GAO-07-479: Published: May 31, 2007. Publicly Released: May 31, 2007.
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Urban storm water runoff is a major contributor to the nation's degraded waters. Under the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a program requiring communities to obtain permits and implement activities to control storm water pollution. EPA's Phase I regulations (1990) applied to communities with populations of 100,000 or more, and its Phase II regulations (1999) covered smaller urban communities. Communities must report progress in meeting permit requirements. Some have raised concerns that storm water requirements impose an undue burden. To evaluate storm water program costs, EPA developed estimates for both phases. GAO was asked to (1) determine the progress in implementing the storm water program, (2) evaluate the extent to which the program burdens communities, (3) examine the accuracy of EPA's cost estimates, and (4) examine the data available for assessing program burden. GAO collected data for all states and a sample of 130 communities, among other steps.
Storm water program implementation has been slow for both Phase I and II communities. The federal deadlines for permit applications were years ago--14 years for Phase I and 4 years for Phase II--but almost 11 percent of all communities were not yet permitted as of fall 2006. In addition, litigation, among other reasons, delayed the issuance of some permits for years after the application deadlines. As a result, almost all Phase II and some Phase I communities are still in the early stages of program implementation. It is too early to determine the storm water program's overall burden, but several factors influence the extent to which the program burdens a community. In particular, burden varies depending on whether communities (1) can use the flexibility built into EPA's regulations to implement less expensive measures, or (2) are able to benefit from prior storm water management experience. Some communities may face a greater burden because of more stringent requirements set by EPA or the states, additional efforts required to address litigation over water quality, or because of barriers to obtaining funding for storm water activities. Storm water program burdens could increase in the future because, among other reasons, EPA or the states may reissue permits with more stringent requirements. Without an estimate of actual storm water program costs--or burden--GAO could not determine the accuracy of EPA's cost estimates. However, GAO did identify methodological concerns that raise questions about the usefulness of these estimates for measuring the burden communities face. That is, the Phase I analysis was not designed to estimate national program costs, the Phase II analysis was based on survey data of questionable validity and reliability, and neither analysis excluded costs for activities that communities were implementing before the program. Any assessment of program burden will be hampered because EPA is not collecting complete and consistent data on communities' activities and their costs. For example, only Phase I communities are required to include data on program costs and these data are often limited. Also, communities' inconsistent reporting of activities makes it difficult to evaluate program implementation nationwide. Consequently, EPA will find it challenging to meet its goal to examine Phase II implementation starting in 2012.
Recommendation for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: In a May 2007 report (GAO-07-479), we recommended that, to enable EPA to evaluate the implementation of the storm water program, EPA should issue additional program guidance and consider regulatory changes to ensure that (1) communities report on activities in sufficient detail to determine their scope, costs, and results; and (2) communities report this information consistently so that it can be analyzed on a national basis. We found that there were no specific national guidelines on what information communities should include in annual reports to their permitting authorities. As a result, some annual reports we reviewed were hundreds of pages long with detailed data on their activities, while others provided little evidence of the storm water activities being implemented or their costs. Consequently, we determined that it would be difficult for EPA to evaluate communities' storm water program activities and, in particular, to assess the burden of the program on communities nationwide. In June 2009, EPA finalized an annual report form for small municipal separate storm sewer systems implementing the storm water program and circulated this form to EPA regional and state storm water programs. EPA indicated that it was taking steps to encourage storm water permitting authorities to use the form and several states indicated they intended to use this form when they reissue relevant permits. In addition, EPA published new guidance for permit authorities issuing municipal storm water permits in April 2010. This guidance included EPA's annual report form along with a recommendation that permit authorities require use of the form when issuing storm water permits. Finally, EPA has also initiated a rulemaking process to make regulatory changes to the storm water program. One of the proposals for which EPA solicited comments was developing a consistent set of requirements for Phase I (large and medium) and Phase II (small) municipal storm sewer systems. According to EPA, while this proposed rulemaking is not focused on improving the quality of storm water program data, eliminating or reconciling differences within the program should help to improve the consistency of the data collected. According to information available on EPA's Web site, the agency intends to propose a rule in September 2011 and to take final action by November 2012.
Recommendation: In order to enable EPA to evaluate the implementation of the storm water program, the Administrator, EPA, should issue additional program guidance and consider regulatory changes to ensure that (1) communities report on activities in sufficient detail to determine their scope, costs, and results; and (2) communities report this information consistently so that it can be analyzed on a national basis.
Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency