Drinking Water:

Spending Constraints Could Affect States' Ability to Meet Increasing Program Requirements

T-RCED-00-298: Published: Sep 19, 2000. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2000.

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Peter F. Guerrero
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the states' roles in implementing the Safe Drinking Water Act, focusing on: (1) how the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) budget requests for state program implementation compared to the amounts that are authorized and estimated to be needed; (2) how much the states have spent since the passage of the 1996 amendments to implement their drinking water programs and how their expenditures compare with estimated needs; (3) what effects federal funding levels have had, and could have in the future, on the states' ability to implement their programs; and (4) what existing practices have the potential to help the states implement their drinking water programs more effectively and efficiently.

GAO noted that: (1) in its budget requests for fiscal years (FY) 1998 through 2000, EPA requested about 94 percent of the $100 million authorized annually for supervision grants; (2) for the same fiscal years, EPA requested, on average, 80 percent of the amounts authorized to capitalize the states' revolving funds for drinking water; (3) if the states had made maximum use of the set-asides by reserving the full 31 percent available from the revolving fund, EPA's requested appropriations would have provided a total of $308 million in FY 1999 and $318 million for FY 2000 to help the states meet their responsibilities in implementing their drinking water programs; (4) according to GAO's nationwide survey of state drinking water agencies, for FY 1997 through FY 1999, the states' actual expenditures for implementing their drinking water programs were $214 million, $237 million, and $276 million, respectively; (5) in FY 1999, total state expenditures fell short of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators' estimate of the amount needed for program implementation by about 20 percent; (6) according to GAO's nationwide survey, the amounts of federal funding available for FY 1997 through FY 1999 had less of an impact on the states' ability to implement their drinking water programs than did the effects of state-imposed spending constraints; (7) over 75 percent of the states reported that their staffing levels in FY 1999 were inadequate to meet the act's requirements in effect through that year; (8) the most frequently cited reasons were: (a) the states' authorized staffing and authorized funding levels were too low; (b) hiring freezes prevented the states from filling authorized positions; and (c) inadequate state salaries made it difficult to attract and retain qualified staff; (9) GAO's discussions with drinking water officials from eight states disclosed that they have been able to meet most requirements in effect through FY 1999, generally by scaling back technical assistance and other oversight activities or doing the minimum amount of work required; (10) program officials in the eight states GAO contacted cited some management practices that could increase the efficiency of program implementation; (11) EPA officials pointed to new program requirements that may increase efficiency, including those designed to assess water sources for contamination and improve the financial, technical, and managerial ability of local water systems to comply with drinking water regulations; and (12) however, it could take years to realize the benefits of these programs.

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