A Gallup poll indicated the number one and two environmental issues causing a “great deal of concern” among Americans are the pollution of drinking water and the pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs, respectively. This places concern for water quality above air pollution, the loss of tropical rainforests, or even global warming.
Accordingly, the US has invested over $1.9 trillion since the 1960sto decrease pollution in national bodies of water. A large portion of this expenditure has been used to enforce the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972, the primary federal law used to restore and maintain the quality of water in rivers, lakes, and other surface waters. This law acts to limit the amount of pollution that point sources—such as industrial facilities and municipal governments—are legally allowed to release into navigable waters and the amount of pollution that comes from nonpoint sources like runoff.
According to a recent review done by researchers at UC Berkeley and Iowa State University, the 1972 Clean Water Act has had a significant effect on reducing water pollution. The review found that rivers have become healthier for both humans and animals, with a 12% increase in the percentage of rivers safe for fishing.
Despite the clear improvements in water quality, researchers concluded that these benefits were far outweighed by the economic cost. The direct costs of the act alone amounted to over $650 billion of federal grants for the creation of municipal sewage treatment plants, which does not account for indirect investments, such as the cost to improve upon existing plants. After performing a cost-benefit analysis of the law, researchers concluded that the overall effectiveness of the act was worth less than half the amount that it took to enforce these policies.
The researchers admitted, however, that their results are not conclusive, as they “may be biased downward due to the exclusion of missing services like health impacts, missing pollutants like toxics, and missing resources like impacts on coastal areas and surface-groundwater interactions.”
The relative ineffectiveness of the act goes against the policy of the past three administrations, which placed an emphasis on environmental regulations that generate a net positive cost-to-benefits ratio. The review used a median analysis of 20 recent evaluations of the CWA and found that the cost-benefit ratio was 0.37. This value pales in comparison to other environmental regulation like the Clean Air Act, which had a median ratio of 30-to-1, according to the EPA. Overall, most environmental regulations have had a cost-benefit ratio with a range between a low estimate of 3.5, to a high estimate of 12.3, according to EPA sources.
The Clean Water Act magnifies the larger question of whether the United States should pursue environmental policies that enforce costly regulations for minimal environmental gain. Should the nation prioritize environmental regulation at the cost of economic growth, or should it value the economy to the detriment of the environment?
This question should not only be asked of the administration running the country, but also of each individual living in it. What sacrifices should one make in life to help preserve the environment?