The Clean Water Act Has Dramatically Reduced Pollution Over The Past Four Decades

The first major study of water pollution within the past few decades has found that the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 succeeded in substantially reducing water pollution.

According to research conducted by a team of scientists from both Iowa State University and UC Berkeley, the CWA managed to improve water quality across at least 240,000 different sites throughout the United States.

Quantifying The Impact Of The Clean Water Act

US citizens remain worried about the quality of water, as Gallup polls suggest the primary environmental concern of Americans is water pollution, above even the effects of climate change and air pollution. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 to impose a system of regulations on companies, industries, and individuals that pollute waterways, often by dumping waste in rivers or lakes.

The Clean Water Act has been responsible for the approval of over $650 billion in grants provided by the federal government to various cities and states in order to facilitate the treatment of sewage, by creating new sewage treatment plants or upgrading currently existing plants.

While the Clean Water Act has driven the creation of many wastewater treatment projects, attempts to quantify the impact the act has had on water quality have been difficult, primarily due to the many different databases maintained by local agencies around the country. To get past the issue of fragmented data sources, the research team compiled data originating from three different national repositories of water data. In addition to this, the team identified the location and date of every municipal water treatment grant.

The team of scientists analyzed data from approximately 240,000 sites across the United States, collected over the course of 39 years from 1962 to 2001. Out of the 25 different measures used to track pollution, almost all of them displayed notable improvement since the act was created. Examples of better waterway health include decreased fecal coliform bacteria levels and increases in dissolved oxygen concentrations. Around 12% of rivers have become safe for fishing in the years between 1972 to 2001.

Not only was there a general decrease in the pollution of water, the analysis conducted by the research team also implies that the water quality of areas downstream from sewage treatment plants experienced a significant improvement after a municipality was given a grant to improve its treatment of wastewater. The researchers also concluded that it costs approximately $1.5 million to keep an area of the river in fishable quality for one year.

The Cost-Benefit Balance

Despite these findings, a variety of economic analyses have estimated that the benefits associated with the CWA are mainly outweighed by the costs of the program. The researchers looked at 20 different economic analyses to discover the conclusions of their cost-benefit analyses. What’s interesting is that when compared with the impacts of other environmental protection acts like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act apparently has a greater cost compared to benefits while other acts have greater benefits compared to costs.

Joseph Shapiro, one of the researchers and associate professor of resource economics and agriculture at the College of Natural Resources UC Berkeley, explains the research team was shocked to find that the benefits found for the program were so low in comparison to the stated costs, especially when considering the evidence that water pollution has dramatically declined over the decades the CWA has been enforced.

The research team suggests that many of the economic analyses done on the Clean Water Act could be failing to account for certain benefits like fewer industrial chemicals in waterways (chemicals that are not currently included in the testing of water quality) and better public health due to cleaner water.

Benefits Unaccounted For

There are multiple ways of assessing the cost-benefit ratio of a policy. Aggregating all the monetary costs and benefits of a policy is one way to evaluate it, but it is also important to evaluate nonmonetary costs and benefits. Nonmonetary benefits and costs are not always immediately apparent. For instance, the cost of a policy such as the Clean Water Act would not only include direct investments into wastewater treatment programs, it would also include indirect investments made by industries and companies during their attempts to improve wastewater treatment and management. Indirect benefits may include increases in housing prices within a treated region or a decreased amount of travel needed to find a suitable swimming or fishing spot.

The research team did their own analysis of the cost-benefit ratio for the Clean Water Act and then combined their results with the results of 19 other analyses done by the EPA and hydrologists. According to the researchers, the economic benefit of the legislation was a little less than half of the costs incurred by the project. However, Shapiro is suspicious that these analyses may not tell the whole story behind the effects of the CWA. Shapiro explains:

Many of these studies count little or no benefit of cleaning up rivers, lakes, and streams for human health because they assume that if we drink the water, it goes through a separate purification process, and no matter how dirty the water in the river is, it’s not going to affect people’s health. The recent controversy in Flint, MI, recently seems contrary to that view.

Shapiro goes on to say that other uncounted benefits to waste treatment are the thousands of chemicals that go untested for in water. Currently, water treatment plants only test for the presence of a few hundred different chemicals, yet industries located in the US produce around 70,000 different chemicals, meaning it is quite possible that the current studies aren’t tracking the presence of many chemicals being reduced by the CWA.

Shapiro says that even if the economic costs did outweigh the economic benefits, Americans shouldn’t be too quick to give up on the Clean Water Act or a desire for clean water generally. Shapiro says that there are many different ways to enhance the quality of water, and while some of the methods used to improve water quality may be an excellent investment, others may not be. Therefore, it is possible for the Clean Water Act to both be a valuable and important project overall and that some of its methods may fail a cost-benefit test.