According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of the Inspector General, the agency should track the water quality outcomes of its major municipal combined sewer overflow (CSO) settlements. By better tracking this information, EPA could show how the money communities are spending to address CSO volume and frequency improves local waterways.

In a 2004 CSO report to Congress, EPA indicated that 828 Clean Water Act permits across 31 states and the District of Columbia establish technology and water quality-based requirements for CSO discharges. However, according to this report, nationwide CSO discharges amounted to 3.2 billion m3 (850 billion gal) annually. EPA has addressed CSO issues through federal consent decrees in 47 communities. In a report released Sept. 16, the inspector general calculates that these consent decrees will eliminate at least 286 million m3 (75.5 billon gal) of CSO discharges annually — 8% of the estimated total — and cost more than $32 billion.

The inspector general states that communities are meeting consent decree project milestones and collecting information demonstrating progress toward reducing CSOs. However, EPA is not tracking and assessing the results of these accomplishments at a national or regional scale. Without such an assessment, it is difficult to determine whether EPA’s stormwater enforcement initiative to address CSOs has resulted in improved water quality, the inspector general states.

To better track the outcomes of CSO mitigation efforts, the inspector general recommends that EPA:

  • develop and report outcome-based goals and measures for CSO consent decrees,
  • develop a national consent decree tracking system,
  • establish regional goals for monitoring and reporting outcomes, and
  • provide a public website for CSO consent decree information.