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GAO Report Examines Columbia River Basin Restoration Program Under Clean Water Act
Posted on Thursday, August 30, 2018 (PST)

A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office calls out federal agencies for not implementing a Columbia River Basin Restoration Program, as required by law, and the report identifies shortcomings in tracking federal spending on restoration efforts that have already been pursued.


In December 2016, Congress amended the Clean Water Act by adding Section 123, which requires the Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Office of Management and Budget to take actions related to restoration efforts in the basin. The GAO was asked to review those efforts.


The report examines efforts to improve water quality from 2010 through 2016; approaches to collaboration that have been used for selected restoration efforts; sources of funding and federal expenditures on restoration; and evaluates how the EPA and the OMB have implemented Section 123.


“The EPA and Office of Management and Budget have not yet implemented Section 123,” the report bluntly states.


The report recommends that EPA develop a plan for implementing a Columbia River Basin Restoration Program; and having OMB compile and submit an interagency “cross-cut” budget. The EPA has accepted the recommendations, but the OMB has yet to comment in response.


The study found that total federal expenditures for restoration efforts through this decade “could not be determined.”


“Entities reported using a mix of federal and nonfederal funding sources for restoration efforts in the basin, but total federal expenditures could not be determined partly because there is no federal funding dedicated toward restoration.


“According to EPA officials, the agency has not yet taken steps to establish the Columbia River Basin Restoration Program, as required by the Clean Water Act Section 123. EPA officials told GAO they have not received dedicated funding appropriated for this purpose,” the report states. “However, EPA has not yet requested funding to implement the program or identified needed resources.”


And the report points out that the OMB hasn’t requested related budget information from several federal agencies involved with restoration efforts.


“By developing a program management plan that identifies actions and resources needed, EPA would have more reasonable assurance that it can establish the program in a timely manner,” the report states. “Also, an interagency cross-cut budget has not been submitted. According to OMB officials, they have had internal conversations on the approach to develop the budget but have not requested information from agencies. A cross-cut budget would help ensure Congress is better informed as it considers funding for basin restoration efforts.”


The report points out that the Columbia Basin is one of North America’s largest watersheds, encompassing 259,000 square miles in the U.S. and Canada, a region with a population of 8 million people. It was once the largest salmon-producing river system in the world, with 16 million salmon returning annually for spawning. Now there are 13 salmon and steelhead stocks that are listed as “threatened” or “endangered.”


“However, hydroelectric power generation, agricultural practices, and other human activities have impaired water quality in some areas of the basin to the point where historic salmon and steelhead stocks and human health are at risk,” the study states.


Historically, restoration and monitoring have focused on recovering fish stocks listed as threatened or endangered, but more recent efforts have focused on water quality and reducing toxins in the river system.


“Over time, these efforts have increased in scope to include a focus on water quality-related concerns — such as reducing river and stream temperatures — because impairments to water quality negatively affect fish populations, among other species.”


The Columbia River and its tributaries were recognized as one of 28 estuaries of “national significance” in 1987 and in 2006, the EPA recognized the Columbia Basin as one of the 10 key “large aquatic ecosystems” in the nation.


Congress amended the Clean Water Act in 2016 by adding Section 123, which required the EPA to establish a Columbia River Basin Restoration Program, and it required the OMB to prepare an interagency cross-cut budget related to federal agencies’ effort to protect and restore the Columbia River Basin.


“To examine the sources of funding and federal funding expenditures in the basin, we obtained budget documents, interviewed agency officials, reviewed responses to funding questions included in our survey, and requested expenditure data for five federal efforts for fiscal years 2014 through 2016.”


The GAO says it identified “significant concerns with the accuracy and completeness of the information that we would gather through this approach, thereby limiting our ability to compare expenditure date across agencies and efforts. Given the degree of variability, uncertainty and lack of detail in the information agencies could provide on their water quality related restoration expenditures, we concluded that the data would not be reliable for the purpose of estimating expenditures of federal funding for water quality related restoration efforts in the basin.”


To get more clarity, the GAO sent a second survey to the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service, the EPA, and the United States Geological Survey. But that did not change the report’s conclusion that total federal expenditures could not be determined.


The GAO’s “performance audit” report, conducted between October of 2016 through August of 2018, also points to a lack of coordination and oversight related to restoration efforts.


“Although there have been some plans to guide certain restoration efforts for parts of the basin, there is no overall plan to guide water quality related restoration efforts throughout the Columbia River Basin or a requirement for a federal agency or others to develop such a plan.”


“We found that entities implemented their restoration efforts under a range of authorities and programmatic missions” and through various collaborative partnerships based on specific circumstances.


“This was in part because there is no overall coordinating body to guide water quality-related restoration efforts throughout the Columbia River Basin or a requirement prior to the enactment of Section 123 for federal agencies to develop such a body,” the report states.


The report comments on other findings. It notes, for instance, that there are fewer water quality monitoring sites in the basin than there were in the 1990s; on the mainstem lower Columbia River, the number of water quality monitoring sites has dwindled and currently just one is being monitored for toxics.


To view the complete report, see:


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