Water Quality:

Improved EPA Guidance and Support Can Help States Develop Standards That Better Target Cleanup Efforts

GAO-03-308: Published: Jan 30, 2003. Publicly Released: Feb 13, 2003.

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Water quality standards are composed of designated uses and criteria. These standards are critical in making accurate, scientifically based determinations about which of the nation's waters are in need of cleanup. To assess EPA and states' actions to improve standards, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment asked GAO to determine the extent to which (1) states are changing designated uses when necessary and EPA is assisting the states toward that end and (2) EPA is updating its criteria documents and assisting states in establishing criteria that can be compared with reasonably obtainable monitoring data.

The extent to which states are changing designated uses varies considerably. Regardless of the number of use changes states have made to date, nearly all states report that some portion of the water bodies within their states currently need changes to their designated uses. Among the key reasons these needed use changes have not been made is states' uncertainty over the circumstances in which use changes are acceptable to EPA and the evidence needed to support those changes. As required, EPA has developed and published criteria for a wide range of pollutants. However, EPA has not developed criteria for sedimentation or finalized criteria for nutrients--the pollutants that, according to EPA data, account for a relatively large share of the nation's impaired waters. Even when national criteria do exist, some states have difficulty establishing their criteria in such a way that they can be compared with reasonably obtainable monitoring data. In addition, a vast majority of states find it difficult to modify their existing criteria when warranted by new information or other circumstances. Changing either designated uses or criteria is considered a standards modification. Twenty-two states reported that an improvement in the process of changing designated uses would result in different water bodies being slated for cleanup, and 22 states reported that an improvement in the process of modifying criteria would have that effect. Superimposing the states' responses indicates that 30 states would have different water bodies slated for cleanup with an improvement in the process of modifying standards.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should take actions to improve states' abilities to adopt, implement, and modify water quality criteria. Specifically, to help ensure that states' criteria are a valid basis for impairment decisions, the Administrator should direct the Office of Science and Technology to develop alternative, scientifically defensible monitoring strategies that states can use to determine if water bodies are meeting their water quality criteria.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has already issued two guidance documents to assist states and tribes in determining the extent to which water bodies are meeting water quality standards. The agency says that it will continue to develop and refine alternative monitoring approaches that help to determine whether their waters meet water quality standards. The agency is also establishing an Office of Water Monitoring Council that will help develop alternative monitoring tools and techniques.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should take actions to improve states' abilities to adopt, implement, and modify water quality criteria. Specifically, to help ensure that states' criteria are a valid basis for impairment decisions, the Administrator should direct the Office of Science and Technology to set a time frame for developing and publishing nationally recommended sedimentation criteria.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Office of Science and Technology (OST) has completed action on this recommendation. In May 2006, EPA completed the Framework for Developing Suspended and Bedded Sediment (SABS) Water Quality Criteria (EPA-822-R-06-001). It has been provided to EPA Regional Offices for their use in assisting states and authorized tribes. The Framework presents a step-wise process for developing SABS criteria and also includes technical methods for measuring, classifying, and associating various levels of SABS with water resource uses. The Framework allows States and Tribes to customize the criteria development process to meet their unique regulatory and programmatic needs. According to EPA, this will enable States and Tribes to develop SABS criteria and regulatory approaches more efficiently than if they depended on a lengthy multi-year process of EPA first developing nationally recommended criteria, and States and Tribes then adjusting the criteria locally.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the designated uses in place under EPA's water quality standards program provide a valid basis for decisions on which of the nation's waters should be targeted for cleanup, the Administrator of EPA should follow through on the agency's plans to assess the feasibility of establishing a clearinghouse of approved designated use changes by 2004.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has already provided, on its web site, the full text of all state and tribal water quality standards so that stakeholders may easily refer to other state, tribal, or territorial standards while reviewing their own. The agency plans a further refinement of what it has already done by enhancing its web-based clearinghouse to better facilitate the exchange of information on critical water quality standards issues, including designated uses.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the designated uses in place under EPA's water quality standards program provide a valid basis for decisions on which of the nation's waters should be targeted for cleanup, the Administrator of EPA should provide additional guidance on designated use changes to better clarify for the states and regional offices when a use change is appropriate, what data are needed to justify the change, and how to establish subcategories of uses.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has taken a number of steps to provide the type of guidance GAO recommended, including workshops, a symposium, and monthly conference calls.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should take actions to improve states' abilities to adopt, implement, and modify water quality criteria. Specifically, to help ensure that states' criteria are a valid basis for impairment decisions, the Administrator should direct the Office of Science and Technology to develop guidance and a training strategy that will help EPA regional staff determine the scientific defensibility of proposed criteria modifications.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has expanded training opportunities for regional staff and stakeholders, mostly using web-based techniques. For example, it has conducted web-based seminars on certain criteria, which have included most states and all its regional offices. The agency has also used its Water Quality Standards Academy to update states and regions on EPA policies.

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