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GAO report calls for strengthening of regulations on nonpoint source pollution

By Sarah DeWeerdt

A new report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) is renewing calls to strengthen Clean Water Act protections against nonpoint source pollution such as stormwater and agricultural runoff. 

The recommendation echoes findings made by the GAO in 2013 when it called for Congress to revise “largely voluntary” regulations for nonpoint pollution sources that wash into waterways such as Puget Sound.

The report, which focuses on the link between Puget Sound water quality and salmon recovery, also criticizes a series of missed deadlines by the Washington State Department of Ecology and EPA to identify waters needing cleanup. 

The GAO, an independent federal agency that works at the behest of Congress, undertook the analysis in response to a request from Republican U.S. Representatives Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA-05), Chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce;  Cliff Bentz (OR-02), Chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife, and Fisheries; and Dan Newhouse (WA-04). 

“It was sort of a narrow look, looking at the Clean Water Act and what EPA and the State of Washington are doing as it relates to salmon recovery,” says Alfredo Gomez, a director on GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment team, who co-led the analysis. The report follows a broader look at Puget Sound restoration that the agency produced in 2018.

For the new “deep-dive on the Clean Water Act,” as Gomez calls it, he and Cardell Johnson, another GAO Natural Resources and Environment director, led a team of analysts who spent nearly two years combing through scientific studies and federal, state, and tribal documents (including more than 10,000 entries from Washington’s current water quality assessment), and interviewing officials from multiple federal, state, and tribal agencies, as well as scientists from additional organizations such as the Puget Sound Institute. 

In the report, published November 8, the team highlighted four ways in which impaired water quality harms Puget Sound salmon populations. Elevated water temperatures, low dissolved oxygen content, too much sediment in the water, and toxic chemicals such as 6PPD-quinone, a substance in tire dust that has been linked to sudden deaths of coho salmon before they are able to spawn, pose threats to various salmon species across their life stages.

These problems with water quality come from both point sources – discrete locations such as discharge pipes of wastewater treatment plants – and nonpoint sources – diffuse sources such as agricultural and stormwater runoff that are not covered by specific permits. The EPA has provided funding to support Washington State programs to address nonpoint source pollution through education, technical assistance, and grants to landowners. 

But under the Clean Water Act, actions to address nonpoint source pollution are voluntary – a major barrier to cleaning up affected waters, the GAO team found. Without authority to require landowners to take action, “there’s only so much that states and EPA can do in working with agriculture entities, farmers, and others to try to prevent those toxins from running to bodies of water,” Gomez says.

A GAO report issued in 2013 recommended that Congress revise the Clean Water Act to bolster its protections for waterways impacted by nonpoint source pollution. But Congress has not yet acted on that recommendation. In the new report, “we reiterate this recommendation we made to Congress 10 years ago, because that continues to be a big challenge in the Puget Sound and around the country,” Gomez says.

Still, there are other ways to improve protections for salmon under the Clean Water Act using existing authority. The law requires states to develop lists every two years of water bodies that do not meet water quality standards; EPA in turn reviews and approves these lists of impaired waterways. Washington State has been late in completing these lists and has only developed two impaired waterways lists since 2012. EPA has also missed deadlines for reviewing and approving the lists. The most recent Washington impaired waterways list, covering the 2014, 2016, and 2018 assessment cycles, was finalized in 2022.

Many states across the country are routinely late in preparing these impaired waterways lists, Gomez says, although Washington State ranks near the bottom. In formal comments on the draft report submitted to GAO, the State Department of Ecology stated that it “disagrees with the report’s focus on the timeliness of the state’s impaired waters list as a key component of salmon recovery in Washington.” The agency said that the thoroughness and complexity of its assessment, as well as the need for review by tribes and the public, make the process more time-consuming than accounted for by the statute.

EPA and the Department of Ecology have discussed how to speed up the production of the impaired waters lists, the GAO team reports, but have not yet developed a written plan to do so. 

GAO will next track the actions the agencies take in response to the report’s recommendations, says Gomez. He says some readers have critiqued the report as being too narrow in scope, but emphasizes that GAO “work[s] for Congress,” and therefore the analysis hews closely to the Representatives’ request. “There are many things that affect the salmon in Puget Sound,” he says.

Sarah DeWeerdt is a Seattle-based freelance science writer specializing in biology, medicine, and the environment. Her work has appeared in publications including Nature, Conservation, and Nautilus.