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Meeting the Nation’s Water Quality Goals with CWA Tools

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report that questions whether we can collectively meet the nation’s water quality goals by relying on one of the primary tools under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  The December 2013 report, titled “Changes Needed If Key EPA Program Is to Help Fulfill the Nation’s Water Quality Goals”, examined the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) process that is intended to help the nation meet the designated uses and water quality standards established for U.S. water bodies.  Overall, the goal of developing a TMDL is to end up with a plan, including the actions needed, to meet water quality standards and restore impaired water bodies.

GAO’s objectives in this review were to examine (1) EPA’s and states’ responsibilities in the TMDL program, (2) what is known about the status of long-established TMDLs, (3) the extent to which long-established TMDLs contain key features that enable attainment of water quality standards, and (4) the extent to which such TMDLs exhibit factors that facilitate effective implementation.

After examining the TMDL process, GAO found that EPA’s ability to track TMDL implementation is hindered by data system limitations and unavailable USDA data.  For those TMDLs where information exists, state coordinators reported that pollutants had been reduced in many waters, but few TMDLs had helped water bodies attain water quality standards.  A higher proportion of long-established point source TMDLs helped water bodies attain water quality standards than did nonpoint source TMDLs.  This discrepancy exists primarily because actions called for in TMDLs for nonpoint source pollution either have not been implemented or have only been implemented to a limited extent.  The GAO found that the TMDLs they examined do not contain all the key features that help ensure that TMDLs accurately identify and address the causes of water body impairment or that ensure the TMDLs can be implemented. GAO also faulted EPA’s guidance on TMDLs which leads to inconsistent application from one EPA Region to the next.

In its conclusions, GAO found that progress toward the Clean Water Act’s goals of restoring and maintaining “the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters — including designated uses of fishing, swimming, and drinking — has stalled, largely because nonpoint source pollution has not been controlled.  Few TMDLs have been implemented for nonpoint source pollution, and for those that have been implemented, progress has generally been incremental, in large part because of long-recognized limits to nonpoint source authority and funding.

GAO recommended that Congress could consider ways to address factors, such as limited authority, which currently impede attainment of water quality standards, particularly the designated uses of fishing, swimming, and drinking.  They also recommended that EPA issue new regulations requiring more of the key elements needed to assure TMDL success and improve guidance to assure that these elements are consistently implemented.  GAO also included recommendations about the use of EPA grant funding to support state implementation.