New Report from the Government Accountability Office Recommends that the Clean Water Act be Amended to Impose Controls on Agricultural Discharges

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) did a review of EPA’s TMDL Program and on January 13, 2014 published a new report entitled “Changes Needed If Key EPA Program Is to Help Fulfill the Nation’s Water Quality Goals” (pdf link) where it recommends that EPA issue new regulations for TMDL development, adding key features. In addition, the GAO recommends that Congress should consider revising the Clean Water Act to allow mandatory controls on pollution from agriculture as part of changes to the federal total maximum daily loads program. The GAO noted that the Clean Water Act addresses nonpoint source pollution largely through voluntary means and that “EPA does not have direct authority to compel landowners to take prescribed actions to reduce such pollution.” The review included a focus on the roles of the EPA and states, as well as the status and effectiveness of long-established TMDLs for impaired waters.

Under the Clean Water Act, states, territories, and tribes develop lists of impaired waters and develop TMDL plans for them under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act. EPA develops criteria for TMDL plans, provides technical assistance to states in writing TMDLs and approves the final plans. A TMDL plan includes calculations of the maximum level of pollutants that each point source, such as a wastewater utility, and nonpoint source, such as a farm, may discharge while still allowing the receiving waters to meet water quality standards. Such a plan includes strategies and actions for reducing impairments.

The GAO also found that EPA needs to promulgate regulations to require TMDLs to specifically identify the factors, or stressors, causing the impairment and to show how addressing it would help attain water quality standards. “GAO’s review showed that EPA’s existing regulations do not explicitly require TMDLs to include these key features, and without such features in TMDLs—or in addition to TMDLs—impaired water bodies are unlikely to attain standards,” the report said. In addition, the GAO said EPA lacks information about how TMDLs are being implemented by states, and whether implementation of such plans is resulting in improved water quality. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) requested the GAO review in December 2011. Boxer chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee; Cardin chairs the Senate Environment Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife. EPA did not comment on the recommendation to revise the Clean Water Act and although it agreed with the need to add key features to TMDLs, it did not agree to issue new regulations. EPA has recently announced its 10 Year Vision Plan, however, which includes new approaches to TMDLs. (BNA, Jan 13) (ht WEF This Week in Washington)

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Alec Mackie

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