GAO: Key EPA water quality program needs greater oversight

By Sara Wyant

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WASHINGTON, JULY 4, 2012 - When it comes to cleaning up the nation's lakes and rivers, states need to do a better job securing landowner involvement in advance of seeking federal funds for projects and conduct more rigorous selection processes, says the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The two key findings were in a GAO report released Monday: “NonPoint Source Water Pollution: Greater Oversight and Additional Data Needed for Key EPA Water Program,” which focuses on the Section 319 program of the Clean Water Act.

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Congress amended the act in 1987 to include section 319, which explicitly addresses nonpoint source pollution through a cooperative, grant-based program with states that fund projects to reduce nonpoint source pollution and restore impaired water bodies. According to data from EPA's Grants Reporting and Tracking System, from fiscal year 2004 through fiscal year 2010, states awarded more than $1.2 billion in section 319 funds to more than 5,800 projects.

State-selected projects to reduce nonpoint source pollution have helped restore more than 350 impaired water bodies since 2000, and the report highlights some of the success stories. For example, since 2007, Pennsylvania has awarded more than $700,000 in section 319 funds to three projects to help implement the Hungry Run Watershed Implementation Plan. Two of these projects focus on installing suites of complementary agricultural conservation practices on farms located in the watershed, such as stream bank fencing, riparian buffers, and cover crops to address agricultural runoff. State officials told GAO that, as a result of these efforts, Hungry Run may be removed from Pennsylvania's list of impaired waters in the future.

But other projects have encountered significant challenges, the GAO noted. According to a survey of 524 managers, about one-third of the projects did not achieve all objectives originally identified in the project proposal.

About fifty percent of the problems were beyond staff control, such as bad weather or staff turnover. However, 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.”

One key concern was the lack of landowner “buy-in” to utilize the funds.

In West Virginia, for example, $285,000 in section 319 funds was awarded to a non-profit to subsidize the cost to homeowners of repairing damaged septic systems. Once the grant was awarded, however, only one homeowner signed up to participate.

A project on the Illinois River was to reduce pollution by implementing conservation practices in urban and forested areas. The state of Illinois provided section 319 funds to a regional planning organization to put in place 2,500 urban and stormwater management practices and implement prescribed burns on 1,000 forest acres.

The organization, however, did not implement the project as proposed because, after receiving funding, it was unable to compel landowners to implement the practices on private property. As a result, of the intended 2,500 urban stormwater practices, 11 were ultimately implemented, and forest conservation measures were implemented on 282 of the intended 1,000 acres because prescribed burns could not be done.

The report also looks at the interaction of the NRCS's Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) with the Section 319 program. GAO questions whether some practices designed to protect certain resources could have unintended impacts, but says more data is needed.

To strengthen implementation of Section 319, GAO recommends that the agency provide specific guidance to EPA's 10 regional offices on how they are to fulfill their oversight responsibilities and revise section 319 guidelines to states. In addition to existing statutorily required reporting measures, states should emphasize measures that more accurately reflect the overall health of targeted water bodies. To read the report, click HERE.

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