Above all other environmental issues in the United States, clean water is most important to Americans.  Although waters in the U.S. are “dramatically” cleaner than they used to be, these gains have come at tremendous financial burden and, still, there’s much to do.

These are the general conclusions of a recent article in ScienceDaily:  “Clean Water Act dramatically cut pollution in US Waterways” by the University of California-Berkeley (UC-Berkeley) dated October 9, 2018.  The UC-Berkeley article is based on a comprehensive study by UC-Berkeley, Iowa State University, and Cornell University, which involved the collection of over 50 million water quality measurements from 240,000 monitoring sites in the U.S. between 1962 to 2001.

For those of us in the business of providing environmental advice, we can easily get lost in the weeds and become micro-focused on issues such as trying to define the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) or the developing per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) issue.  We can forget there is a bigger picture.  The indisputable fact is that our water is cleaner…but we are not “there” yet.

The Cost of Reducing Water Pollution

One of the authors of the comprehensive study is Joseph Shapiro, Associate Professor of Agriculture and Resources Economics in the College of Natural Resources at UC-Berkeley. According to Shapiro, “Water pollution has declined dramatically, and the Clean Water Act contributed substantially to these declines.”  However, Shapiro also stated, “…we were shocked to find that the measured benefit numbers were so low compared to the costs.”  And the costs have been substantial.

According to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), “US investment to decrease pollution in rivers, lakes, and other surface waters has exceeded $1.9 trillion since 1960, and has also exceeded the cost of most other US environmental initiatives.  These investments come both from the 1972 Clean Water Act and the largely voluntary efforts to control pollution from agriculture and urban runoff.”

Water Infrastructure Bill Signed

All of this comes as a new Bill (America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018) was signed by President Trump.  According to an online article in Pacific Standard Magazine published October 23, 2018, by Emily Moon, “President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan water infrastructure bill into law on Tuesday (October 23, 2018), authorizing billions of dollars for state-level projects aimed at improving the nation’s rivers, harbors, and drinking water.”

This focus on infrastructure is consistent with stated goals outlined last fall by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The EPA plan also “called out” nonpoint source pollution (see Draft FY 2018-2088 EPA Strategic Plan, Public Draft Review October 2, 2017), as well as nutrient loading on rivers and lakes:  “Water quality programs face challenges such as increases in nutrient loadings, nonpoint source and storm runoff…”

Further, the Bill includes provisions related to Harmful Algal Blooms, stormwater infrastructure, wastewater technology, sewer overflow (grants), and more.  Many states are also concerned about and are declaring some waterways as “impaired” (see Lake Erie has been declared impaired. So What?).

Practical Considerations

Studies and new bills aside, what are the practical clean water considerations for the regulated community?  Where can/should the regulated community focus their attention in anticipation of potential greater focus on water quality issues?

More than any other environmental issue, Americans want clean water.

More than any other environmental issue, Americans want clean water.

Industrial Compliance

Clean Water Act compliance obligations that may be required by the regulated community include obtaining National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits and preparing Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure Plans and Pollution Incident Prevention Plans (Michigan specific).  In addition, various contingency plans may be required under other acts and regulations (e.g., Resource Conservation and Recovery Act).  If you are not sure of your current compliance status with these or other permits/plans, you can contact Matthew Schroeder, P.E., our senior environmental engineer.

Agriculture and Non-Point Source Compliance

Situations where U.S. waters are being impacted by nonpoint source pollution can be complicated and contentious.  The Clean Water Act specifically addresses issues like this, including agricultural and urban runoff scenarios where responsible parties are difficult to discern.  For example, how can we tell if the nitrates impacting a lake or river are from manure or fertilizer applications?  In these situations, more advanced approaches are needed.

This is the type of question we can answer with environmental isotopes (see Nitrates in Groundwater: Identifying the Source Using Advanced Methods).  If you have questions about nitrates in groundwater or the use of isotopes in source determination, you can ask Dr. Michael Sklash, our senior hydrogeologist.

Help with Clean Water Programs

All indications are that regulators will continue to push toward the Clean Water Act’s goal of ensuring all U.S. waterways are “fishable and swimmable.”  With this in mind, and with the government’s drive toward “cooperative federalism,” we may see increased focus of local and state regulators on water-related issues.

If you have questions or need assistance with an environmental issue, you can reach me at 248-932-0228, ext. 134.