In a report released this spring, the Government Accountability Office examined the Clean Water Act Section 319 that provides funding to clean non-point water pollution, finding that much of the programs supported by the funding have had little to no success.
Section 319 was added to the 1972 Clean Water Act in 1987 to account for nonpoint pollution, which includes agricultural runoff, oils from highways and roads, and pollutants from mines and logging roads.
Recognizing that this nonpoint pollution was affecting aquatic wildlife and water quality for human use and recreation, the section included a provision that, since 2000, has averaged approximately $200 million annually in funding for projects meant to address nonpoint pollution.
To determine effectiveness of the programs supported by section 319 funding, the GAO examined states experiences in providing funding, the extent of EPA oversight of those programs, and the extent to which agricultural conservation programs compliment the EPA's initiative through section 319 to address nonpoint pollution.
In their study, the GAO found that many states have funded successful programs, including prevention of runoff into Pennsylvania's Hungry Run Watershed, which will be removed from the state's list of impaired waters if it continues to improve.
However, the study also examined "preventable challenges" that state projects have faced, including one instance in West Virginia where a $285,000 grant was awarded to clean up faulty septic tanks, but only one homeowner signed up to participate.
The GAO report said that indirect approaches to improving water quality, such as the instance in West Virginia, do not have appropriate "buy-in" from landowners and are difficult to implement.
EPA oversight of section 319 is also limited, the GAO found. Differences in reporting styles of regional offices may have skewed data to reflect significant change or none at all in water bodies being studied.
Finally, the GAO examined the effectiveness of USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program and its relationship to section 319, finding that the program has significantly reduced pollutants coming from agricultural land. However, the GAO found some instances where proper procedure was not followed, leading the office to search Natural Resources Conservation Service data, which was not sufficiently detailed to determine USDA Environmental Quality Incentive effectiveness.
The GAO recommended that EPA provide section 319 oversight guidance to its regional offices to further determine effectiveness of the programs funded, a direction to which the EPA agreed. USDA, however, did not respond.
Read the full report here.