Drinking Water: Unreliable State Data Limit EPA's Ability to Target Enforcement Priorities and Communicate Water Systems' Performance
The nation's drinking water is among the safest in the world, but contamination has occurred, causing illnesses and even deaths. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has authorized most states, territories, and tribes to take primary responsibility for ensuring that community water systems provide safe water. EPA needs complete and accurate data on systems' compliance with SDWA to conduct oversight. GAO was asked to assess the (1) quality of the state data EPA uses to measure compliance with health and monitoring requirements of the act and the status of enforcement efforts, (2) ways in which data quality could affect EPA's management of the drinking water program, and (3) actions EPA and the states have been taking to improve data quality. GAO analyzed EPA audits of state data done in 2007, 2008, and 2009, and surveyed EPA and state officials to obtain their views on factors that have affected data quality and steps that could improve it.
The data states reported to EPA for measuring compliance with health and monitoring requirements of SDWA did not reliably reflect the number of health-based and monitoring violations that community water systems have committed or the status of enforcement actions. Using data from the 14 states EPA audited in 2009, GAO estimates that those 14 states did not report or inaccurately reported 26 percent of the health-based violations that should have been reported and 84 percent of the monitoring violations that should have been reported. GAO's findings were consistent with the results of prior EPA audits. In addition, according to EPA headquarters and regional officials GAO interviewed and surveyed, state-reported data underreported the percentage of water systems with violations against which the states have taken enforcement actions. Survey respondents and other officials reported that numerous factors contribute to errors in reported data on violations and enforcement, including inadequate training, staffing, and guidance, and inadequate funding to conduct those activities. Unreported health-based and monitoring violations and incomplete enforcement data limit EPA's ability to identify water systems with the most serious compliance problems and ensure that it is achieving its goal of targeting for enforcement those systems with the most serious compliance problems. Specifically, incomplete and inaccurate data on both violations and enforcement actions affect a scoring tool EPA and the states are using to rank systems for enforcement actions. In addition, unreliable data quality impedes EPA's ability to monitor and report progress toward a strategic objective of reducing exposure to contaminants in drinking water. For example, EPA's 2011 national program guidance contains a performance measure for the number and percentage of systems with certain repeated health-based violations, but EPA's ability to reliably use this type of measure requires complete and accurate data on violations. Because of unreported violations data, EPA may not be able to report accurate performance information on systems with these violations. EPA and the states have collaborated over many years to identify and address the causes of incomplete and inaccurate violations data, but those efforts have not been fully successful, according to EPA and state officials GAO surveyed. EPA's efforts have included (1) conducting audits--discontinued in 2010 because of funding constraints--to determine the completeness and accuracy of the violations data states reported to EPA, (2) establishing three work groups to address data management and quality, and (3) urging EPA regions and states to use data management tools the agency has developed. However, EPA has encouraged but not required that its regions or the states take specific actions that could improve data quality. EPA's 2010 drinking water strategy calls for, among other things, an increase in shared data between the agency and the states. EPA also plans to redesign its drinking water data system to provide it with greater access to, and oversight of, the states' determinations of SDWA violations. GAO is making recommendations to improve EPA's ability to oversee the states' implementation of SDWA and provide Congress and the public with more complete and accurate data on compliance and enforcement. EPA partially agreed with two of the recommendations, disagreed with one, and neither agreed nor disagreed with one. GAO believes that EPA needs to implement all of the recommendations to improve its ability to oversee SDWA.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Environmental Protection Agency||
Priority Rec.To improve EPA's ability to oversee the states' implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act and provide Congress and the public with more complete and accurate information on compliance, the Administrator of EPA should resume data verification audits to routinely evaluate the quality of selected drinking water data on health-based and monitoring violations that the states provide to EPA. These audits should also evaluate the quality of data on the enforcement actions that states and other primacy agencies have taken to correct violations.
As of March 2022, EPA identified actions to improve the agency's ability to oversee the quality of drinking water data that states provide to EPA, other than data verification audits, which the agency indicated it stopped due to budgetary constraints in 2016. For example, the agency told us it was evaluating data quality through a three-pronged approach of electronic reporting through the Compliance Monitoring Data Portal (CMDP), automated data quality assurance tools, and state file reviews. EPA also indicated that there was an 80 percent reduction in data flow errors through the CMDP. However, because the results were based on a survey of seven states, EPA does not know how much data flow errors may have lessened in other states, and questions remain about issues such as compliance determination errors. As a result, it is unclear to what extent EPA's efforts have resulted in more accurate and complete data on water systems' compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. EPA needs additional information on the extent to which its Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS) modernization will improve the agency's ability to oversee states' implementation of SDWA and provide Congress and the public with more complete and accurate information on compliance. EPA indicated that the agency would work closely with states and the SDWIS Modernization Board to collect the necessary information and an efficient mechanism to evaluate whether SDWIS data are current, accurate, and complete. Once the modernization is complete and in use by states, EPA plans to develop goals for the completeness and accuracy of data on monitoring violations. After EPA completes the modernization, we will conduct additional follow-up with agency staff on the status of these efforts.
|Environmental Protection Agency||To improve EPA's ability to oversee the states' implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act and provide Congress and the public with more complete and accurate information on compliance, the Administrator of EPA should work with the states to establish a goal, or goals, for the completeness and accuracy of data on monitoring violations. In setting these goals, EPA may want to consider whether certain types of monitoring violations merit specific targets. For example, the agency may decide that a goal for the states to completely and accurately report when required monitoring was not done should differ from a goal for reporting when monitoring was done but not reported on time.||
As of March 2022, this recommendation remains open. EPA is modernizing the Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS), with several efforts underway, but until it is fully operational, EPA will not be able to work with states to establish a national goal for the quality of monitoring violations. We are conducting additional follow-up with EPA staff to receive an update on the status of these efforts.
|Environmental Protection Agency||To improve EPA's ability to oversee the states' implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act and provide Congress and the public with more complete and accurate information on compliance, the Administrator of EPA should consider whether EPA's performance measures for community water systems could be constructed to more clearly communicate the aggregate public health risk posed by these systems' noncompliance with SDWA and progress in having those systems return to compliance in a timely manner.||
In September 2019, EPA indicated that the agency uses a variety of measures to communicate systems' compliance with health-based requirements, but these measures provide a limited view about the risks posed by systems' noncompliance. While EPA has a performance measure that identifies water systems that were out of compliance with at least one health-based standard in the previous 12 months, and has set a target for Fiscal Year 2022 representing a 25% reduction in such systems from Fiscal Year 2017 levels, we remain concerned that there is no measure offering more complete information on compliance. As we stated in our report, EPA's measures do not provide information on the relative severity of the violations or account for systems that have multiple health-based violations, offering the public a narrow view of the quality of the nation's water systems and not clearly communicating the public health risk posed by these systems' noncompliance with SDWA. For example, a water system with multiple health-based violations is effectively "counted" the same as a system with one health-based violation. EPA also indicated to us that the agency continues to use the "person month" measure and, according to the agency, continues to have conversations with stakeholders about health risks. However, EPA has not offered additional information regarding changes to performance measures. Therefore, we have closed this recommendation as not implemented.
|Environmental Protection Agency||To improve EPA's ability to oversee the states' implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act and provide Congress and the public with more complete and accurate information on compliance, the Administrator of EPA should work with the EPA regions and states to assess the progress made in implementing the steps called for by the 2008 action plan and the Director of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water's 2009 memorandum; identify the barriers that have prevented more widespread implementation of the action plan and memorandum; and develop and publish a strategy for overcoming those barriers.||
According to EPA, the agency is working on several activities to improve data quality. In support of the agency's efforts to articulate environmental outcomes and outputs in state categorical grant workplans, the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water initiated a workgroup in 2013 to develop greater consistency across its workplans, including having a category for data quality and data management activities, outcomes, outputs, and staffing levels and dollars associated with those activities. The Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water has created a Draft Data Quality Improvement Plan that is currently being reviewed by Regions and States. The overall goal of the 2013 plan, and the action items within that plan, are similar to the overall goal and action items in the 2008 plan and 2009 memorandum referenced in our original recommendation. The 2013 plan was developed with the Data Management Advisory Committee (DMAC) which is co-chaired by an EPA and a State representative. In addition, EPA's national water program guidance continues to identify improving data quality as an important activity for the Public Water System Supervision program. In April 2015, EPA reported that its Regions continue to incorporate data quality into PWSS grant workplans and discuss data management issues during regular meetings and reviews. EPA indicated that the agency worked with states to finalize a SDWIS Data Quality Improvement Plan in September 2013, and identified the following actions since then on implementing the plan: incorporating data quality functions within the developing SDWIS Primacy Agency (Prime), which will replace SDWIS/State and SDWIS/Fed ODS; producing a quarterly data quality matrix that is being used by EPA and States to track and encourage data quality improvements (the initial set of data quality matrix quarterly reports were completed in May 2014); and providing training on drinking water regulations and planning for the release of its online drinking water training system in Winter 2016. Because the 2013 plan supersedes the plans referenced in GAO-11-318, we feel the actions from 2013 forward meet the spirit of the original recommendation.