Rural Water Infrastructure:

Improved Coordination and Funding Processes Could Enhance Federal Efforts to Meet Needs in the U.S.-Mexico Border Region

GAO-10-126: Published: Dec 18, 2009. Publicly Released: Jan 19, 2010.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Anu K. Mittal
(202) 512-9846
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

A serious problem for U.S. communities along the U.S.-Mexico border is the lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation systems. Inadequate systems can pose risks to human health and the environment, including the risk of waterborne diseases. Numerous federal programs provide grants, loans, or other assistance to rural U.S. communities, including those in the border region, for drinking water and wastewater projects. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to determine (1) the amount of federal funding provided to rural U.S. communities in the border region for drinking water and wastewater systems and (2) the effectiveness of federal efforts to meet the water and wastewater needs in the region. GAO analyzed agency financial data; reviewed statutes, regulations, policies, and procedures; and interviewed federal, state, local, and private sector officials.

Seven federal agencies--the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps), Economic Development Administration (EDA), the Indian Health Service (IHS), and the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation)--obligated at least $1.4 billion for drinking water and wastewater projects to assist communities in the U.S.-Mexico border region from fiscal years 2000 through 2008. USDA and EPA obligated 78 percent, or about $1.1 billion, of the total $1.4 billion--with USDA obligating 37 percent, or $509 million, and EPA obligating 41 percent, or $568 million. Agencies provided assistance for a variety of drinking water and wastewater activities, such as constructing or improving treatment facilities and installing distribution lines. For example, of the $509 million total, USDA obligated about $502 million to public utilities or similar entities for construction of or improvements to water and wastewater infrastructure. It obligated over $7 million to individuals in the border region for household projects, such as repairs to indoor plumbing. Federal efforts to meet drinking water and wastewater needs in the border region have been ineffective because most federal agencies (1) have not comprehensively assessed the needs in the region, (2) lack coordinated policies and processes, and (3) in some cases have not complied with statutory requirements and agency regulations. Although federal agencies have assembled some data and conducted limited studies of drinking water and wastewater conditions in the border region, the resulting patchwork of data does not provide a comprehensive assessment of the region's needs. Without such an assessment, federal agencies cannot target resources toward the most urgent needs or provide assistance to communities that do not have the technical and financial resources to initiate a proposal for assistance. In contrast, IHS has collected data on water and wastewater conditions for each tribal reservation. As a result, the agency can select projects that target the greatest need. In addition, although some federal agencies recognize the importance of a collaborative and coordinated process to increase program effectiveness, agencies' policies and processes are generally incompatible or not collaborative with those of other agencies. For example, most federal programs require separate documentation to meet the same requirement and the agencies do not consistently coordinate in selecting projects. As a result, applicants face significant administrative burdens and project completion can be delayed. Moreover, GAO found that some agencies do not always meet the requirements stipulated in federal statutes and agency regulations concerning how they are to determine the eligibility of applicants or projects and how they are to prioritize funds. For example, USDA and HUD do not ensure that recipients' use of targeted funds intended for use in the border region complies with statutory requirements for establishing project priorities in the border region. Finally, the Corps has not established any guidance to ensure funds are targeted to those projects with the greatest need.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our December 2009 report on federal efforts to meet water and wastewater needs in the U.S.-Mexico border region, we found that those efforts has been mostly ineffective because, in part, because USDA--which is one of the largest sources of federal funding for water and wastewater infrastructure--had not complied with statutory requirements Specifically, USDA does not ensure that funds intended for use in the border region comply with statutory requirements for establishing project priorities. The Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act, as amended, directs USDA to provide financial assistance for water supply and waste facilities and service to communities whose residents face significant health risks, because the community's residents do not have access to such facilities. The act states that USDA must give preference to entities "that propose to provide water supply or waste disposal services to the residents of those rural subdivisions commonly referred to as colonias, which are characterized by substandard housing, inadequate roads and drainage and a lack of adequate water or waste facilities." Thus, the provision requires USDA to give preference to water and waste projects in colonias where other infrastructure and housing are also inadequate. Our work concluded that USDA had no process in place to ensure that colonias without water and waste services were given preference. We recommended that the USDA take steps to better target limited funds. Based in part upon our work, in July 2012, USDA modified the agency's regulations to allow for additional priority points to projects serving colonias areas that lack access to water or waste disposal systems and face significant health problems. The agency reported that the intent of the modifications were to ensure that the neediest areas receive funding. This action will improve USDA's ability to ensure funds are properly used and distributed and we consider the recommendation to have been implemented.

    Recommendation: To ensure that funding established to meet the needs of colonias is used in ways that are consistent with statutory and regulatory requirements, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct Rural Development to revise its process of determining eligibility to ensure that the agency only provides Section 306C colonia funds for projects that benefit colonias, as defined by federal statute, and to revise its priority process to better target limited funds to those projects meeting the statutory preference criteria.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HUD issued an updated edition of the Grantee Monitoring Handbook in April 2010 that includes new information and a checklist for state and HUD regional offices to use in monitoring Colonia Set-aside funds. In addition, HUD issued new guidance to program administrators in the four border states. The guidance directs state programs to demonstrate compliance with statutory requirements by (1) limiting assistance provided specifically to areas designated as a colonia, (2) using funds for water, wastewater, housing, and associate projects, and (3) distributing funds based on the priority needs of colonias in the states. The agency also conducted a conference call with the program administrators from Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as applicable field offices, to explain the guidance and answer any questions. These actions will improve HUD's ability to ensure Colonia Set-aside funds are properly used and distributed.

    Recommendation: To ensure that funding established to meet the needs of colonias is used in ways that are consistent with statutory and regulatory requirements, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development should ensure that state agencies provide Colonia Set-aside funds only for projects that benecolonias, as defined by federal statute, and to promptly establish guidance to ensure states follow a method of distribution that results in the prioritization of Colonia Set-aside funds to those colonias with the great need. Further, the Secretary should monitor the states' uses of all Colonia Set-aside funds as distinct component of CDBG monitoring.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Secretary of the Army, Civil Works, stated in March 2011 that the Corps would complete this recommendation if it received additional appropriations to do so. At the time, the Corps had not received additional funds and had not taken action. Since that time, the Corps has not received additional funds and still has not taken action.

    Recommendation: To ensure that funding established to meet the needs of colonias is used in ways that are consistent with statutory and regulatory requirements, if the Corps continues to assist communities with water and wastewater related activities through the colonia program, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop eligibility criteria and a standard process to review and select activities for funding that targets the assistance to those with the greatest need. The process should comply with all applicable regulations and include verification of eligibility.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2009, GAO suggested that Congress consider establishing an interagency mechanism, such as a task force on water and wastewater infrastructure, to identify needs within the border region--including the identification of water infrastructure needs within colonias. In April 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (USDA) issued a report describing a joint effort to address the critical public health and environmental challenges in the U.S.-Mexico Border region. This effort was created partly in response to GAO's report and is an effort to leverage collective agency resources to identify needs within the border region and implement compatible and coordinated policies and procedures. The effort involves five phases, the first of which is a needs assessment based on available data and selected criteria, including water and waste disposal infrastructure availability, environmental and public health conditions, and availability of already completed projects (state and federal). EPA and USDA completed this first phase in April 2014 when it published U.S. Mexico Border Needs Assessment and Support Project: Phase 1 Scoping Assessment Report. Given this progress and the fact that EPA and USDA are the largest sources of federal funding for water and wastewater infrastructure in the border region, GAO believes the agencies' effort meets the intent of the recommendation to Congress, and as a result, considers the suggestion to have been implemented.

    Recommendation: In order to better address the needs of the region, Congress may wish to consider establishing an interagency mechanism or process, such as a task force on water and wastewater infrastructure in the border region that includes the federal agencies that administer programs in the region. Congress may wish to direct any task force, in partnership with state and local officials, to leverage collective resources to identify needs within the border region--including the identification of the water infrastructure status within colonias, and the extent to which the lack of institutional capacity has impeded communities within the border region from seeking assistance.

    Agency Affected: Congress

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2009, GAO suggested that Congress consider establishing an interagency mechanism, such as a task force on water and wastewater infrastructure, to develop common policies and procedures in the U.S.-Mexico border region. In our duplication reviews, we have reported that Congress has taken no action but that EPA and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) have taken actions to enhance interagency coordination. EPA and USDA, working with other agencies including the Department of Health and Human Service's Indian Health Service and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), have taken steps to develop coordinated policies and procedures in the following ways: (1) The agencies developed a standardized preliminary engineering report template for water and wastewater infrastructure projects. In January 2013, EPA and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) completed guidelines for preliminary engineering reports to meet federal and state requirements and are working with states to adopt the guidelines. The agencies have also developed associated guidance that should, together with the template, help communities identify the basic information needed to meet preliminary engineering report requirements across federal agencies. The template has been adopted at the national level by EPA, USDA, and the Indian Health Service, and USDA began web-based training for field staff in May 2013. According to officials, USDA, EPA, and HUD are working together to encourage adoption of the template by state agencies that partner with federal agencies to fund rural water and wastewater infrastructure projects. They have worked with 16 states to develop the template, and according to EPA and USDA officials, as of March 2014, 6 states have adopted the template for use. EPA and USDA plan to continue to work with state agencies that have not adopted the template and associated guidance to gain wider adoption. Doing so could eliminate the burden and cost that result from duplicative reports and analyses that may be completed when applying for federal funds. (2) The agencies have begun taking steps to develop guidelines to assist states in developing uniform environmental analyses, as GAO recommended in October 2012. The agencies are participating in a workgroup, the Grant Paperwork Streamlining Workgroup, along with other federal agencies that fund rural water infrastructure projects (HUD, the Department of Health and Human Services' Indian Health Service, and the Department of the Interior). The workgroup has developed a matrix that describes the environmental analyses required by each agency that will be a tool that communities applying for funding can use to identify and complete appropriate environmental analyses. In addition, EPA is working with USDA to determine the extent to which requirements for EPA and USDA water infrastructure projects duplicate one another. As of February 2014, the agencies have gathered information on the extent to which state and USDA partners coordinate their environmental analysis work for water and wastewater infrastructure projects. According to the agencies, they will continue meeting monthly to share information and are working to determine their next steps. (3) The agencies are also taking steps in the border region to coordinate policies and procedures. For example, several agencies are participating in the Tribal Interagency Task Force (including EPA, USDA, HUD, Indian Health Service, and Interior), a group that coordinates activities on tribal lands, including such lands in the border region. Given that EPA and USDA are the largest sources of federal funding for water and wastewater infrastructure in the border region, and the agencies are working with the other agencies that provide assistance in the border region including HUD and Indian Health Service, this effort meets the intent of the suggestion and GAO considers it to have been implemented.

    Recommendation: In order to better address the needs of the region, Congress may wish to consider establishing an interagency mechanism or process, such as a task force on water and wastewater infrastructure in the border region that includes the federal agencies that administer programs in the region. Congress may wish to direct any task force, in partnership with state and local officials, to, in light of these needs, establish a framework for compatible and coordinated policies and procedures across relevant agencies, such as a coordinated process for the selection of projects, and standardized applications and environmental review and engineering requirements the extent possible.

    Agency Affected: Congress

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2009, GAO suggested that Congress consider establishing an interagency mechanism, such as a task force on water and wastewater infrastructure, to evaluate the degree to which gaps in water and wastewater infrastructure programs exist in the U.S.-Mexico border region and the resources needed to address them. In April 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service (USDA) published a report describing a joint effort to address the critical public health and environmental challenges in the U.S.-Mexico Border region. This effort was created partly in response to GAO's report in an effort to leverage collective resources to identify needs within the border region and implement compatible and coordinated policies and procedures. The effort involves five phases, the second, third, and fourth of which are to gather more specific needs and implements the assistance program, targeting the gaps in service. USDA announced a grant to fund this Colonias Needs Assessment in April 2014 and awarded grants in June 2014. The grant began on July 1, 2014 and USDA has requested a report by the end of calendar year 2014. Given that EPA and USDA are the largest sources of federal funding for water and wastewater infrastructure in the border region, this effort meets the intent of the suggestion and GAO considers it to have been implemented.

    Recommendation: In order to better address the needs of the region, Congress may wish to consider establishing an interagency mechanism or process, such as a task force on water and wastewater infrastructure in the border region that includes the federal agencies that administer programs in the region. Congress may wish to direct any task force, in partnership with state and local officials, to evaluate the degree to which there are gaps in the programs and what resources or authority would be needed to address them.

    Agency Affected: Congress

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2009, GAO suggested that Congress consider establishing an interagency mechanism, such as a task force on water and wastewater infrastructure, to provide periodic status reports regarding the progress made in developing a strategic and coordinated approach to water and wastewater infrastructure in the U.S.-Mexico border region. In April 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (USDA) issued a report describing a joint effort to address the critical public health and environmental challenges in the U.S.-Mexico Border region. This effort was created partly in response to GAO's report in an effort to leverage collective resources to identify needs within the border region and implement compatible and coordinated policies and procedures. The effort involves five phases, which are to gather increasingly specific needs and implement the assistance program, targeting the gaps in service. USDA's Rural Utilities Service has a webpage with information on the effort http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/UWP-wwtat.htm. It contains links to instructions, webinars, and questions and answers on the webinar and periodic updates on the agencies' effort. Given that EPA and USDA are the largest sources of federal funding for water and wastewater infrastructure in the border region, GAO considers this effort to meet the intent of the recommendation and the recommendation to have been implemented.

    Recommendation: In order to better address the needs of the region, Congress may wish to consider establishing an interagency mechanism or process, such as a task force on water and wastewater infrastructure in the border region that includes the federal agencies that administer programs in the region. Congress may wish to direct any task force, in partnership with state and local officials, to provide periodic status reports regarding the progress made in developing this strategic and coordinated approach.

    Agency Affected: Congress

  8. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: Congress may also wish to consider reemphasizing the priorities for use of Colonia Set-aside funds by specifically requiring HUD to make these funds available only for grants related to the three existing statutory purposes, and by directing HUD to report annually to Congress on the purposes for which such funds were used and the steps it is taking to ensure that the funds are being used for require purposes.

    Agency Affected: Congress

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Sep 10, 2014

Sep 9, 2014

Aug 28, 2014

Jul 24, 2014

Jul 21, 2014

Jul 9, 2014

Jul 8, 2014

Looking for more? Browse all our products here