Study Shows EPA’s Watershed Program Needs “Focused” Commitment

If the Environmental Protection Agency is going to be successful in using the Watershed based approach to protect water quality across the United States, it will need a focused commitment both from inside the agency and among stakeholders and states, according to a recent study conducted by EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).

If the Environmental Protection Agency is going to be successful in using the Watershed based approach to protect water quality across the United States, it will need a focused commitment both from inside the agency and among stakeholders and states, according to a recent study conducted by EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).

The study examined EPA’s success in four critical elements of its program to advance the watershed approach. These four elements are integration, stakeholder participation, strategic planning, and performance measurement.

“Although progress has been made in each of the four critical elements that we reviewed, further improvements are needed for each. EPA has made progress integrating watershed approach principles into some of its core water programs, but needs to address challenges to ensure further success. Stakeholders were enthusiastic about the watershed approach, but identified a number of obstacles when adopting the approach.

“EPA has made important strides incorporating the watershed approach into its strategic plans, but it must improve some key steps. Although EPA developed a performance measurement system for improving water quality on a watershed basis, EPA did not develop measures to evaluate key programs and activities, and its national outcome measures were not understandable, comparable, and reliable,” the report’s authors said.

The Office of Inspector General is an independent office within EPA. It employs auditors, program analysts, investigators, and others with extensive expertise. Although part of EPA, Congress provides the office funding separate from the Agency, to insure its independence.


Historically, EPA has worked to protect water quality through implementing the Clean Water Act and using a variety of regulatory programs and tools. The conventional water programs, however, have tended to focus on particular sources, pollutants, industries, or facilities, and have resulted in a fragmented approach to managing water quality. Despite a huge reduction in the amount of pollutants entering the environment through point sources, the nation’s water quality has remained at risk because of nonpoint source pollution. As a result, EPA has been working to refocus its efforts onto a watershed-based protection approach.

EPA elevated the importance of the watershed approach by creating subobjective 2.2.1 in its 2003-2008 Strategic Plan. According to the Strategic Plan, successfully protecting and improving water quality on a watershed basis depends on: implementation of core water programs, including integration on a watershed basis; engaging diverse stakeholders in solving problems; and applying innovative ideas, such as water quality trading, to deliver cost-effective water pollution control. EPA also developed two national outcome measures and an Implementation Plan.

The “outcome measures” used to asses how well EPA’s efforts are improving water quality include the number of the Nation’s watersheds where water quality standards are met in at least 80 percent of the assessed waters segments, and the number of watersheds where all assessed water segments maintain their quality and at least 20 percent of assessed water segments show improvements above conditions as of 2002.

According to its Implementation Plan, the watershed approach “should be the fulcrum of Federal and State restoration and protection efforts, and those of our many stakeholders, both private and public.

“EPA has both a national interest in, and responsibility for, supporting watershed goals and approaches and believes that such an approach is one of the most important environmental guiding principles to maintain and restore the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

OIG Study

The Office of Inspector General conducted its evaluation from October 2003 through February 2005 in accordance with Government Auditing Standards. Among other things, its staff evaluated EPA headquarters and regional guidance for the watershed approach and core programs; interviewed all four of the primary Office Directors within the Office of Water, as well as managers and program staff in each of the six core programs; and spoke with EPA regional water program directors and staff from Regions 1, 4, 7, and 10.

Additionally, staff interviewed representatives of nine large and small watershed organizations, and water staff from six states, to identify advantages and obstacles that EPA needs to address regarding the watershed approach.

Results in Brief

While EPA has made progress in implementing the four key elements that OIG reviewed regarding the watershed approach, improvements in each of the elements are needed to ensure the success of the approach.

EPA has taken steps to integrate the watershed approach into its core water programs, but a number of challenges exist that may prevent further integration. Stakeholders, who are vital to successful implementation of the watershed approach, identified a number of advantages to the watershed approach, as well as obstacles that threaten the implementation of the approach. EPA has made strides in strategic planning for the watershed approach, but phases of the planning process must be improved.

While EPA has developed a performance measurement system, it needs to be improved so that critical performance information is conveyed to EPA on the implementation of the watershed approach.


If EPA is committed to the watershed approach, OIG recommends that the Agency:

• Commit the necessary resources to support, where appropriate, the development of watershed permits, watershed TMDLs, and watershed plans;

• Evaluate the benefits and costs of watershed permitting and watershed TMDLs; and

• Work closely with States to ensure that the CWSRF is used as an additional source of funding for nonpoint source and other watershed related projects.

Work closely with watershed advocacy groups to educate the public about the value of water resources and how public participation is critical to safeguard these resources;

• Improve coordination and communication with States and watershed organizations to help ensure the success of the watershed approach in achieving clean and safe water; and

• Provide technical assistance to stakeholders, particularly in developing watershed plans.

• Ensure that Office of Water and EPA Regions clearly understand their roles in setting and achieving national watershed goals; and

• Improve Regional plans to help achieve watershed goals.

• Ensure that the performance of all critical national strategies and implementation of core water programs on a watershed basis can be assessed since EPA does not have performance measures for some key programs and activities; and

• Improve the design of the watershed restoration and watershed improvement goals to be more understandable, comparable, and reliable. WW

For More Information

A full copy of the Sept. 21, 2005, Evaluation Report: “Sustained Commitment Needed to Further Advance Watershed Approach” may be downloaded from the Internet at

More in Home