Water QualityFederal Role in Addressing and Contributing to Nonpoint Source Pollution Gao ID: RCED-99-45 February 26, 1999
Much progress has been made to restore the quality of the nation's waterways since the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972. In response to congressional concerns about the impact of nonpoint source pollution and the potential cost to deal with the problem, this report (1) provides background information and funding levels for federal programs that primarily address nonpoint source pollution; (2) examines the way in which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assesses the overall potential costs to reduce nonpoint pollution nationwide and alternative methods for doing so; and (3) describes nonpoint source pollution from federal facilities, lands, and activities. The federal agencies GAO contacted spent about $3 billion annually for fiscal years 1994 through 1998 on 35 programs that addressed nonpoint source pollution. EPA has pegged the cost to control three major sources of nonpoint source pollution at $9.4 billion annually. To arrive at that amount, EPA analyzed agriculture, silviculture, and animal feeding operations and estimated pollution control costs for these sources. EPA acknowledges that the methodology has several limitations. The federal government manages or authorizes, or issues permits or licenses for, various activities that produce nonpoint source pollution and, in some cases, affect water quality.
GAO noted that: (1) the federal agencies GAO contacted reported spending about $3 billion annually for fiscal years 1994 through 1998 on 35 programs that they identified as addressing nonpoint source pollution; (2) some deal directly with nonpoint source pollution; others focus on different objectives but still address the problem; (3) while EPA is the primary agency involved in water quality issues given its role under the Clean Water Act, many other federal agencies have programs addressing nonpoint source pollution and, in some cases, devote a significant amount of resources to the problem; (4) in particular, the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) programs account for over $11 billion of all federal funding identified by these agencies; (5) USDA officials explain that while most of the programs identified by the agency do not have specific nonpoint source pollution objectives, the programs' activities nonetheless help to reduce nonpoint source pollution; (6) EPA has estimated the annual costs of controlling three major sources of nonpoint source pollution to be $9.4 billion, an amount that represents one of the few systematic attempts at estimating such costs nationwide; (7) specifically, EPA's methodology to produce the estimate analyzes agriculture, silviculture, and animal feeding operations and estimates pollution-control costs for these sources; (8) EPA acknowledges that the methodology has several limitations; (9) GAO also found that the methodology does not assess and disclose the considerable range of uncertainty associated with EPA's control cost estimate and that it includes insufficient documentation of its cost-estimation methodology; (10) EPA officials told GAO that the agency is considering an additional cost-estimation methodology, a watershed based approach, that could provide a substantially more realistic estimate by taking into account the unique characteristics of individual watersheds; (11) the federal government manages or authorizes a variety of activities that result in nonpoint source pollution and, in some cases, affect water quality; and (12) the following five activities have been identified as those with the most potential to contribute significantly to nonpoint source pollution: (a) silviculture; (b) grazing; (c) drainage from abandoned mines; (d) recreation; and (e) hydromodification.Recommendations
Our recommendations from this work are listed below with a Contact for more information. Status will change from "In process" to "Open," "Closed - implemented," or "Closed - not implemented" based on our follow up work.Director: Team: Phone: