Nonpoint Source Water Pollution: Greater Oversight and Additional Data Needed for Key EPA Water Program

GAO-12-335 Published: May 31, 2012. Publicly Released: Jul 02, 2012.
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What GAO Found

Under section 319 of the Clean Water Act, state-selected projects to reduce nonpoint source pollution have helped restore more than 350 impaired water bodies since 2000, but other projects have encountered significant challenges. According to GAO survey results, 28 percent of projects did not achieve all objectives originally identified in the project proposal (e.g., implementing the desired number of pollution reduction practices), while many that did so still faced considerable challenges. About half such challenges were beyond staff control (e.g., bad weather or staff turnover), but the other half were challenges that generally could have been identified and mitigated before projects were proposed and selected for funding, such as gaining access to desired properties. In one state, for example, $285,000 in section 319 funds was to subsidize the cost to homeowners of repairing damaged septic systems. Once the grant was awarded, however, one homeowner signed up to participate.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) oversight and measures of effectiveness of states’ programs have not consistently ensured the selection of projects likely to yield measurable water quality outcomes. EPA’s 10 regional offices varied widely in their review of states’ work plans, which describe projects states plan to undertake in the upcoming year, and project selection criteria, which identify eligibility parameters for receiving section 319 funds. For example, three regional offices reported reviewing annual work plans in depth and actively influencing the types of projects selected, while three others reported limited to no involvement in such reviews, instead deferring to states’ judgment on project feasibility and selection. EPA, however, has not provided its 10 regions with guidance on how to oversee the state programs. Also, EPA’s primary measures of program effectiveness may not fully demonstrate program achievements. Section 319 requires states to report to EPA on two measures, including reductions in key pollutants. It does not limit EPA to these two measures, but the agency has chosen to use them as barometers of success for the section 319 program. States can demonstrate their achievements in additional ways—ways that may provide a more accurate picture of the overall health of targeted water bodies, such as the number and kind of living organisms in the water.

USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program is the key agricultural conservation program that can complement EPA efforts to reduce nonpoint source pollution, and its conservation practices have significantly reduced pollutants coming from agricultural land across the country. Notwithstanding its achievements, certain conservation practices can adversely affect water quality if not properly implemented—for example, by transporting polluted runoff from nutrient-laden fields into nearby water bodies. The agency’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has procedures in place intended to ensure that its practices do not inadvertently harm water quality. During its field work, GAO identified a few instances where these procedures may not have been followed (including in watersheds where EPA’s section 319 funds had been used), and therefore sought NRCS data to determine if they were isolated instances or indicative of a more prevalent issue. NRCS’ national level data, however, are not sufficiently detailed to identify whether appropriate measures are always in place to mitigate potential water quality impacts. According to NRCS, such data are instead located in its field offices and are not analyzed by the agency.

Why GAO Did This Study

Pollution from nonpoint sources—such as runoff from farms or construction sites—remains the leading cause of impairment to the nation’s waters. Under section 319 of the Clean Water Act, each year EPA provides grants to states to implement programs and fund projects that address nonpoint source pollution; the program received $165 million in fiscal year 2012. Section 319 includes minimum conditions that states must meet to receive grants. By regulation, EPA’s 10 regional offices oversee state programs and are to ensure that states’ projects can be feasibly implemented. USDA also has programs to protect water resources.

GAO examined (1) states’ experiences in funding projects that address nonpoint source pollution, (2) the extent to which EPA oversees the section 319 program and measures its effectiveness, and (3) the extent to which key agricultural programs complement EPA efforts to control such pollution. GAO surveyed project managers, reviewed information from EPA’s 10 regional offices on oversight of state programs, and analyzed USDA data.

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GAO recommends, among other things, that EPA provide section 319 oversight guidance to its regional offices and that USDA analyze data to determine if measures were taken to mitigate water quality impacts in section 319 project areas. EPA agreed with the recommendations, while USDA was silent on them. Both agencies commented on specific findings, which are addressed within the report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Environmental Protection Agency
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
To help protect the quality of our nation's water resources, and to strengthen EPA's implementation of its responsibilities under the Clean Water Act's section 319 nonpoint source pollution control program, the Administrator of EPA should provide specific guidance to EPA's 10 regional offices on how they are to fulfill their oversight responsibilities, such as how to review states' plans for project feasibility and criteria to ensure that funded projects have characteristics that reflect the greatest likelihood of effective implementation and tangible water quality results.
Closed – Implemented
In 2013, EPA issued final "Nonpoint Source Program and Grants Guidelines for States and Territories." The guidelines laid out more specific expectations for EPA regional oversight. Specifically, the guidance directed that more 319 funds go to watershed projects, narrowed the activities that could be implemented as part of watershed projects, and focused states on keeping their state plans current. In July 2016, we issued an update of EPA's progress on our recommendations. In it, we concluded that EPA's 2013 guidance aligned with our recommendation, but did not provide specific instruction to the regional offices on how to review states' plans for project feasibility and criteria to ensure that funded projects have characteristics reflecting the greatest likelihood of tangible water quality results, as we recommended. In August 2018, EPA officials provided GAO with a draft 319 Program Project Selection Checklist, which identifies key elements that should be considered in the review of states' 319 plans. EPA officials recommend that regional officials use the checklist to review nonpoint source workplans and proposed projects to ensure consistent review and successful projects. According to the officials, the checklist will enhance the consistency of review and includes key factors for successful projects. GAO reviewed the checklist and agrees that it provides regions guidance to review states' nonpoint source plans for project feasibility and characteristics that reflect likelihood of effective implementation and water quality results.
Environmental Protection Agency
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
To help protect the quality of our nation's water resources, and to strengthen EPA's implementation of its responsibilities under the Clean Water Act's section 319 nonpoint source pollution control program, the Administrator of EPA should, in revising section 319 guidelines to states, and in addition to existing statutorily required reporting measures, emphasize measures that (1) more accurately reflect the overall health of targeted water bodies (e.g., the number, kind, and condition of living organisms) and (2) demonstrate states' focus on protecting high-quality water bodies, where appropriate.
Closed – Implemented
In June 2020, EPA said that it now has the data and a metric to track state efforts to protect high-quality water bodies through 319-funded projects; the data needed to support the recommended measure is available and is being used. As noted in prior submittals, to measure the overall health of targeted water bodies, EPA revised its water quality measures (now S21) to capture a wider range of nonpoint source water quality improvements, including progress towards water quality standards based on biological condition. To measure the state's ability to protect high-quality water bodies, EPA now has an array of data on 319-funded projects that protect high-quality/unimpaired waters (i.e., >50% of project budget goes to protection efforts). EPA officials stated that they intend to update this metric annually and post the data on EPA's website. GAO considers this recommendation closed.
Department of Agriculture To help protect the quality of our nation's water resources, and to provide assurance that efforts to conserve soil resources do not work at cross-purposes with efforts to protect water quality, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service to analyze available information, and obtain necessary information from field offices, to determine the extent to which appropriate mitigation measures are implemented when nutrient management plans are not in use, particularly in watersheds where states are spending section 319 funds.
Closed – Implemented
In response to our recommendation, in August 2015, USDA issued a one-time analysis of NRCS contract data for conservation practices installed between 2009 and 2012 through the EQIP program. NRCS limited the analysis to five hydrologic regions and watersheds that also had EPA 319 projects installed to limit water quality effects. NRCS then analyzed the number and type of conservation practice installed with the three conservation practices noted in our 2012 report that may have a negative impact on water quality. NRCS concluded that in the instances where the three conservation practices were installed, they were almost always accompanied by at least one other conservation practice to mitigate the effect on water quality. This type of information is the type of site-specific data that is needed to determine whether potential water quality effects are being mitigated, but as we noted in our report, NRCS does not have this information readily available to assess on a regular basis whether the program's conservation practices are having an effect on water quality or not. The NRCS report shows what is needed in the way of analysis and assessment to ensure that conservation practices are being installed correctly and that water quality is protected. That NRCS conducted the analysis this one time is helpful and addresses our recommendation. However, we note that NRCS does not regularly conduct such assessments and does not regularly assess its contracts and conservation practices to ensure that they continue to protect water quality.

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