Water Quality:

Federal Role in Addressing and Contributing to Nonpoint Source Pollution

RCED-99-45: Published: Feb 26, 1999. Publicly Released: Mar 10, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the impacts of nonpoint source water pollution and the potential costs of dealing with the problem, focusing on: (1) funding levels for federal programs that primarily address nonpoint source pollution; (2) the way Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assesses the overall potential costs of reducing nonpoint pollution nationwide and alternative methods for doing so; and (3) nonpoint source pollution from federal facilities, lands, and activities that federal agencies manage or authorize, or for which they issue permits or licenses.

GAO noted that: (1) the federal agencies GAO contacted reported spending about $3 billion annually for fiscal years 1994 through 1998 on 35 programs that they identified as addressing nonpoint source pollution; (2) some deal directly with nonpoint source pollution; others focus on different objectives but still address the problem; (3) while EPA is the primary agency involved in water quality issues given its role under the Clean Water Act, many other federal agencies have programs addressing nonpoint source pollution and, in some cases, devote a significant amount of resources to the problem; (4) in particular, the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) programs account for over $11 billion of all federal funding identified by these agencies; (5) USDA officials explain that while most of the programs identified by the agency do not have specific nonpoint source pollution objectives, the programs' activities nonetheless help to reduce nonpoint source pollution; (6) EPA has estimated the annual costs of controlling three major sources of nonpoint source pollution to be $9.4 billion, an amount that represents one of the few systematic attempts at estimating such costs nationwide; (7) specifically, EPA's methodology to produce the estimate analyzes agriculture, silviculture, and animal feeding operations and estimates pollution-control costs for these sources; (8) EPA acknowledges that the methodology has several limitations; (9) GAO also found that the methodology does not assess and disclose the considerable range of uncertainty associated with EPA's control cost estimate and that it includes insufficient documentation of its cost-estimation methodology; (10) EPA officials told GAO that the agency is considering an additional cost-estimation methodology, a watershed based approach, that could provide a substantially more realistic estimate by taking into account the unique characteristics of individual watersheds; (11) the federal government manages or authorizes a variety of activities that result in nonpoint source pollution and, in some cases, affect water quality; and (12) the following five activities have been identified as those with the most potential to contribute significantly to nonpoint source pollution: (a) silviculture; (b) grazing; (c) drainage from abandoned mines; (d) recreation; and (e) hydromodification.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Agency has not addressed this recommendation; any possible action at some point down the road would be difficult to link to the message of this 5-year old report.

    Recommendation: To improve EPA's approach toward estimating the cost of controlling nonpoint source pollution, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Office of Water to address key limitations in its approach and presentation of the methodology and its results by: (1) including the costs of operating and maintaining best management practices; (2) assessing and disclosing the range of uncertainty associated with its control cost estimate; and (3) more fully documenting its cost estimation methodology.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA indicates that it has solicited input on its methodology from USDA and other external reviewers.

    Recommendation: To improve EPA's approach toward estimating the cost of controlling nonpoint source pollution, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Office of Water to work with researchers at USDA and U.S. Geological Survey to obtain lessons learned, data sources, and modeling approaches to help advance EPA's own efforts to develop a watershed-based cost-estimation approach.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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