Drinking Water Research:

Better Planning Needed to Link Needs and Resources

RCED-99-273: Published: Sep 24, 1999. Publicly Released: Oct 19, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) safe drinking water research efforts, focusing on: (1) comparing EPA's budget requests for drinking water research during fiscal years (FY) 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) obtaining 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) assessing 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, although the gap has narrowed recently; (2) for example, EPA requested $77.4 million for FY 1998, or nearly 24 percent less than the $101.6 million that was authorized for that year, but this gap was reduced to about 14 percent for FY 2000, since EPA requested $87 million of the $101.6 million authorized; (3) 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; (4) however, because EPA does not generally prepare estimates of the total resources that will be needed to carry out multiyear research programs, there is no overall estimate of resource needs for drinking water with which to compare EPA's annual budget requests; (5) the stakeholders GAO interviewed all 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 in the areas of health effects and the analytical methods used to detect contaminants; (6) 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; (7) according to the stakeholders GAO interviewed, the potential consequences of not having adequate research to support upcoming regulations could be significant; (8) if EPA issues regulations that are more stringent than can be justified by the available science, then water utilities could bear unnecessarily high treatment costs; (9) on the other hand, if EPA decides to set a less stringent standard because some scientific data are not available, consumers could be exposed to harmful contaminants longer than necessary; and (10) EPA has prepared detailed research plans that identify the specific tasks that it needs to complete in order to support upcoming regulations on arsenic and microbial pathogens, disinfectants, and disinfection by-products.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: During the past fiscal year, EPA completed and made available to the public a new multi-year plan for drinking water research, which includes annual performance measures (expected outputs) and annual and long-term research goals (outcomes) that are linked to existing research plans. According to the plan, the fiscal years designated for completion of the annual performance measures are based on a projection of critical points in the science and a consideration of when the scientific information is needed to support important regulatory milestones relating to the development, review, or implementation of the rules. However, the plan omits a critical element: it does not estimate the resources that will be required to support needed research or provide a transparent link between the planning process for drinking water research and budget development.

    Recommendation: To improve the link between research needs and resources and to better ensure that limited research funds within EPA and other organizations are most efficiently targeted, the Administrator, EPA, should take steps to ensure that the budget development and planning processes for drinking water research are more transparent. Specifically, EPA should: (1) identify the specific research that must be accomplished; (2) establish timeframes that indicate when the results must be available; (3) estimate the resources that will be required to support the needed research; and (4) use these data to develop budget requests and inform stakeholders of what research will be funded.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA's Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water has developed a Drinking Water Research Information Network (DRINK) system to track ongoing drinking water research activities. According to EPA, the system includes information on research conducted by EPA and other national, regional, and international organizations, including the projects' objectives, abstract, timeline, status, and budget. The DRINK system is linked to EPA's newly enhanced Environment Information Management System, which highlights research conducted or sponsored by the agency's Office of Research and Development and is linked to a multi-year research plan for drinking water.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should take steps to improve: (1) the tracking of ongoing research in relation to existing research plans; and (2) the communication of the agency's progress so that the Office of Research and Development's key customers, including the Office of Water and outside stakeholders, can obtain timely and accurate reports on the status, timing, and funding of individual research projects.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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