GAO Flunks Some States on Tap Water Quality Monitoring
A new report from Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative arm, shows that a number of states have made serious errors in tap water safety data reporting. GAO attributed the lapses to inadequate funding and oversight.
The GAO report, released July 19 by Reps. John Dingell (D-MI), Edward Markey (D-MA) and Henry Waxman (D-CA), highlights serious deficiencies in state compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. It comes a week after another GAO report detailed many problems in the implementation of another aspect of the Safe Drinking Water Act: its provisions for monitoring unregulated water contaminants.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates certain contaminants nationwide and issues other guidelines for water quality. However, the EPA grants states the right to monitor and regulate drinking water contaminants if their rules meet or exceed federal standards.
GAO finds serious monitoring lapses
The investigative agency found that when EPA audited 19 states in 2007, fully one-fifth of health-based violations were not reported completely or correctly. In a 2009 audit of 14 states, the percentage of incorrect or incomplete violation reports climbed to 26 percent. In 91 percent of these instances, GAO found, state authorities had failed to cite offending water systems or report the violations.
The GAO estimated that in 2009, states did not report 84 percent of monitoring violations. Many of the systems that had failed to monitor their water quality also incurred actual health-based violations.
Depending on the severity of a water system's lapses, states are empowered to take enforcement actions ranging from advisories to fines. GAO found that states failed to report correctly 27 percent of the enforcement actions lodged against community water systems.
The GAO attributed reporting failures to "inadequate training, staffing, and guidance, and inadequate funding to conduct those activities" on behalf of the states and water utilities.
GAO also scolded EPA for failing to maintain high standards for state reporting and for poor management of compliance assistance funding.
Less reliable data, potentially unsafe water
EPA Administrator Jackson has shown great leadership in developing a comprehensive Drinking Water Strategy. The new strategy was developed to better leverage existing legislation to protect the nation's drinking water supply.
It lays out four goals: " Address contaminants as a groups rather than one at a time so that enhancement of drinking water protection can be achieved cost-effectively.  Foster development of new drinking water technologies to address health risks posed by a broad array of contaminants.  Use the authority of multiple statutes to help protect drinking water.  Partner with states to share more complete data from monitoring at public water systems (PWS)."
While the administrator's actions are welcome, the GAO report is evidence that the EPA should develop its own tap water database and enforce the Safe Drinking Water Act more aggressively.
EPA discontinued its drinking water quality audits last year for lack of money. The GAO said these audits might resume this year but at a slower pace. Without the information generated by this program, Americans have less assurance that their water quality actually meets national standards.
The GAO reports shows that EPA demands too little of the states. The agency's 2006 goal aimed to see that 90 percent of health-based drinking water violations were reported completely and correctly. A 10 percent margin of error is far too high when it comes to serious health risks.
Worse, the EPA has no goal for complete, accurate data on monitoring violations.
The agency attempts to spend its budget on those water systems with the most serious compliance problems. If it does not know which systems are worst, it cannot spend taxpayer money effectively.
The EPA's new Enforcement & Compliance History Online -- ECHO -- database is a notable improvement in advancing public knowledge of water quality nationwide. But if the data feeding into it are flawed, its value is limited.
In response to the GAO report, EPA officials have promised to audit incoming data more intensely. As well, they say that the agency's access to information will advance when its Safe Drinking Water Information System is updated sometime around 2014. It has promised other technical improvements to fill its data gaps.
A problem you can't see is a problem you can't fix
The EPA has been loudly and unfairly criticized for overreaching and needlessly consuming taxpayer money. Yet GAO's findings bring to light how critical it is for Congress to fund the audits that allow EPA to investigate its own workings. Without this funding, the agency will not be able to carry out the enforcement measures it needs to ensure the safety of the American people.
Indeed, top Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee used the report to severely criticize their Republican counterparts for proposing cuts of over $134 million from the EPA's Drinking Water State Revolving Fund Program, which gives states and water utilities needed funding to assist with legal compliance and the protection of public health.
"Rather than slashing funding for this critical public health resource, Congress should be moving legislation to improve the reporting and policing of drinking water violations," said Waxman, who serves as the committee's ranking member.
Given the evidence the GAO has provided, it is deeply troubling that the EPA risks losing even more funding.
Instead of crippling the EPA's ability to identify and target health violations in tap water reporting, Congress should ensure that the agency can fund internal reviews and fix critical problems. Moreover, the EPA itself should do more to target the worst compliance issues.
All in all, the EPA seems to be moving in the right direction with a strategy that contemplates a more highly integrated and robust approach to gathering data on water safety. Next generation technologies could help it pinpoint the areas and utilities that need compliance funding the most.
But without accurate data in the first place, it's the old story - garbage in, garbage out.