Fast Facts

Long Island Sound, an estuary in one of the nation's most densely populated areas, provides many economic and recreational benefits. However, development and pollution have degraded water quality and led to hypoxia, low levels of dissolved oxygen that increase mortality of fish and other species.

A federal-state partnership funded restoration projects and created a plan and cost estimates to restore the Sound. However, current reports and estimates do not provide complete information about how progress will be measured or what restoration will cost.

We recommended steps to improve the partnership's progress reports and cost estimates.

Long Island Sound Stewardship Areas with Ecological and Recreational Values

This map of Long Island Sound shows 33 Stewardship Areas.

This map of Long Island Sound shows 33 Stewardship Areas.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Long Island Sound Study (the Study) is a federal-state partnership formed in 1985 to restore Long Island Sound. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and officials from Connecticut and New York provide oversight for the Study, which includes federal and state agencies, nonprofit organizations, and other groups. GAO found the following:

Progress toward 1994 Plan. The Study established an initial plan for the Sound in 1994 and has collected data on certain indicators of the Sound's health and published progress reports on its website. However, the Study has not comprehensively assessed progress against the 1994 plan. In the absence of such an assessment, GAO interviewed Study members who generally agreed that moderate progress has been made in achieving goals for five of the six problem areas in the 1994 plan. Without a comprehensive assessment, it is not possible to determine the extent these views reflect actual progress.

Reporting Progress for the 2015 Plan. The Study's 2015 management plan identifies 20 long-term targets and associated numerical indicators that will be used to measure future progress. The Study has also updated the format for pages on its website to provide more consistent progress reports for these targets. However, the reports do not yet fully incorporate leading practices for performance reporting that GAO has previously identified. For example, they do not include evaluations of goals that are not met for 15 targets. By ensuring that leading practices are fully incorporated into the Study's performance reporting efforts, EPA can help the Study better assess and report on future progress.

Estimating Costs of Restoration. The Study has estimated that the future costs of restoration will be at least $18.9 billion through 2035. However, the current estimates are understated because they do not include the costs of all activities that will be needed to accomplish the 2015 plan, and they do not reflect the uncertainty associated with some of the costs. By capturing the full costs and uncertainties in cost estimates, the Study can provide decision makers critical information needed to allocate resources effectively.

A Salt Marsh in the Long Island Sound Watershed A Salt Marsh in the Long Island Sound Watershed

Why GAO Did This Study

Long Island Sound, an estuary bordered by Connecticut and New York, provides numerous economic and recreational benefits. However, development and pollution have resulted in environmental impacts, such as the degradation of water quality. EPA partnered with both states to create the Study to restore and protect the Sound. The Study developed a comprehensive conservation and management plan in 1994 and updated the plan in 2015.

GAO was asked to examine federal efforts to restore the Sound. This report examines, among other objectives, (1) what is known about the progress made toward achieving the 1994 plan, (2) how Study members plan to measure and report on progress toward achieving the 2015 plan, and (3) estimated costs of the restoration. GAO reviewed Study plans, reports, and data. GAO also interviewed 12 Study members—including federal and state agency officials—and representatives of 5 Study work groups about restoration efforts and progress made.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that EPA work with the Study to ensure that it fully incorporates leading practices into its performance reporting efforts and that its cost estimates include the full range of activities as well as those for which there is uncertainty. EPA agreed with GAO's recommendations and highlighted steps the agency will take to meet the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Environmental Protection Agency 1. The Director, working with the Study, should ensure that as the Study finalizes its reporting format, it fully incorporates leading practices of performance reporting. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In June 2020, the Long Island Sound Study (Study) stated that it has incorporated two leading practices into the reporting format for its progress reports. The Study's website shows the progress toward ecosystem targets compared to the recovery plan, and for a preceding period of time when data are available. According to the Study, EPA hired a contractor to develop a report addressing GAO's recommendations. The Study is using the contractor report to finalize its reporting format and plans to develop an online reporting and tracking system that fully incorporates leading practices of performance reporting. According to EPA officials in September 2020, the 2020 Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan implementation actions will be finalized by the end of calendar year 2020. The Study will enter the new actions into the online tracking system, and EPA officials anticipate completion of the online tracking system by mid-year 2021 and its being populated with data by September 2021. GAO will review the format of the online tracking system when it becomes available and provide updated information as appropriate.
Environmental Protection Agency 2. The Director, working with the Study, should develop cost estimates that include analyses of uncertainties for each of the targets in the 2015 plan. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
In June 2020, the Study reported that it had hired a contractor to develop a report including the range of costs, including uncertainty bounds, needed to attain each of the targets in the 2015 plan. The contractor has completed its study. Cost estimates for each ecosystem target were developed by adding up the existing cost ranges for each of the implementation actions in the 2015 plan. The report is posted and accessible to the public on the Long Island Sound Study website (https://longislandsoundstudy.net/2019/11/addressing-gaos-recommendations-liss-performance-reporting-and-cost-estimating/). The report contains recommendations for the Study to continue estimating costs in future reports. According to EPA officials, as the Study updates the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) implementation actions for the period 2020-2024, the cost ranges for the implementation actions will be updated as well. This information will be contained in the CCMP supplemental documents. The Study will also update the Ecosystem Target cost estimates using the updated ranges. Officials said that the study is implementing most of the contractor report recommendations with modifications to best fit the needs of the program. We consider this recommendation closed.
Environmental Protection Agency 3. The Director, working with the Study, should estimate the range of potential costs for all implementation actions and include the estimates in future supplements to the 2015 plan. (Recommendation 3)
Open
In June 2020, the Study said that as part of the Plan 2020-2024 implementation action update, it will include a range of costs for implementation actions. We will review the supplemental documents when they are available and provide updated information as appropriate.

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