Clean Water Act dramatically cut pollution in U.S. waterways — @ucberkeley

From (Kara Manke):

The 1972 Clean Water Act has driven significant improvements in U.S. water quality, according to the first comprehensive study of water pollution over the past several decades, by researchers at UC Berkeley and Iowa State University.

The team analyzed data from 50 million water quality measurements collected at 240,000 monitoring sites throughout the U.S. between 1962 and 2001. Most of 25 water pollution measures showed improvement, including an increase in dissolved oxygen concentrations and a decrease in fecal coliform bacteria. The share of rivers safe for fishing increased by 12 percent between 1972 and 2001.

Confluence of the Cimmaron and Gunnison rivers. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Despite clear improvements in water quality, almost all of 20 recent economic analyses estimate that the costs of the Clean Water Act consistently outweigh the benefits, the team found in work also coauthored with researchers from Cornell University. These numbers are at odds with other environmental regulations like the Clean Air Act, which show much higher benefits compared to costs.

“Water pollution has declined dramatically, and the Clean Water Act contributed substantially to these declines,” said Joseph Shapiro, an associate professor of agricultural and resource economics in the College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley. “So we were shocked to find that the measured benefit numbers were so low compared to the costs.”

The researchers propose that these studies may be discounting certain benefits, including improvements to public health or a reduction in industrial chemicals not included in current water quality testing.

The analyses appear in a pair of studies published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cleaning up our streams and rivers

Americans are worried about clean water. In Gallup polls, water pollution is consistently ranked as Americans’ top environmental concern – higher than air pollution and climate change.

Since its inception, the Clean Water Act has imposed environmental regulations on individuals and industries that dump waste into waterways, and has led to $650 billion in expenditure due to grants the federal government provided municipalities to build sewage treatment plants or improve upon existing facilities.

However, comprehensive analyses of water quality have been hindered by the sheer diversity of data sources, with many measurements coming from local agencies rather than national organizations.

To perform their analysis, Shapiro and David Keiser, an assistant professor of economics at Iowa State University, had to compile data from three national water quality data repositories. They also tracked down the date and location of each municipal grant, an undertaking that required three Freedom of Information Act requests.

“Air pollution and greenhouse gas measurements are typically automated and standard, while water pollution is more often a person going out in a boat and dipping something in the water.” Shapiro said. “It was an incredibly data and time-intensive project to get all of these water pollution measures together and then analyze them in a way that was comparable over time and space.”

In addition to the overall decrease in water pollution, the team found that water quality downstream of sewage treatment plants improved significantly after municipalities received grants to improve wastewater treatment. They also calculated that it costs approximately $1.5 million to make one mile of river fishable for one year.

Comparing costs and benefits

Adding up all the costs and benefits — both monetary and non-monetary — of a policy is one way to value its effectiveness. The costs of an environmental policy like the Clean Water Act can include direct expenditures, such as the $650 billion in spending due to grants to municipalities, and indirect investments, such as the costs to companies to improve wastewater treatment. Benefits can include increases in waterfront housing prices or decreases in the travel to find a good fishing or swimming spot.

The researchers conducted their own cost-benefit analysis of the Clean Water Act municipal grants, and combined it with 19 other recent analyses carried out by hydrologists and the EPA. They found that, on average, the measured economic benefits of the legislation were less than half of the total costs. However, these numbers might not paint the whole picture, Shapiro said.

“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,” Shapiro said. “The recent controversy in Flint, MI, recently seems contrary to that view.”

“Similarly, drinking water treatment plants test for a few hundred different chemicals and U.S. industry produces closer to 70,000, and so it is possible there are chemicals that existing studies don’t measure that have important consequences for well-being,” Shapiro said.

Even if the costs outweigh the benefits, Shapiro stresses that Americans should not have to compromise their passion for clean water — or give up on the Clean Water Act.

“There are many ways to improve water quality, and it is quite plausible that some of them are excellent investments, and some of them are not great investments,” Shapiro said. “So it is plausible both that it is important and valuable to improve water quality, and that some investments that the U.S. has made in recent years don’t pass a benefit-cost test.”

Catherine L. Kling, professor of agricultural and life sciences and environmental economics and Cornell University, is a co-author on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper.

Research funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture Hatch Project IOW03909 and Award 2014-51130- 22494 and a National Science Foundation Award SES-1530494. Much of the research was completed while Shapiro was at Yale University.

#ColoradoRiver: “But the fact that we seem to be getting something of this sort, or at least an agreement on the general outline of how it might work, is a big deal” — @JFleck #COriver #aridification

From The Arizona Republic (Ian James):

The documents, which were released Tuesday, lay out a framework for cuts in water deliveries to prop up the levels of the river’s two biggest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

The documents included proposed drought-contingency plans for the Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — as well as the Lower Basin states — Arizona, Nevada and California.

The details of how much water each state would leave in Lake Mead have been negotiated over the past couple of years, and the proposed numbers haven’t changed since the outlines of an agreement were circulated earlier this year.

Negotiations are still underway in Arizona to determine how cities, farming districts and tribes could share in the cutbacks to spread around the impacts of the deal.

Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River program director for the National Audubon Society, expressed optimism about the states reaching the agreements.

“This news puts us closer than we’ve ever been to a more secure water future for the Colorado River,” Pitt said in a statement. “Arizona is the last piece of the puzzle before the Drought Contingency Plan is a done deal.”

Pitt noted that once the Lower Basin states sign an agreement, it will trigger parallel efforts by Mexico under a deal signed last year for the country to also store more water in Lake Mead.

“More water in Lake Mead means reduced risk of severe water shortage declarations,” Pitt said. Plus, she said, having a deal in place would allow for more of a focus on efforts to direct some water toward environmental purposes, including habitat restoration efforts in the dry Colorado River Delta and the shrinking Salton Sea.

With the states seemingly close to wrapping up the agreements, drafts of the agreements were posted online by Utah’s Division of Water Resources and the Upper Colorado River Commission.

From The Associated Press (Dan Elliott):

The agreements are tentative and must be approved by multiple states and agencies as well as the U.S. government. But they are seen as a milestone in the effort to preserve the river, which supports 40 million people and 6,300 square miles (16,300 square kilometers) of farmland in the U.S. and Mexico.

“I think it’s a critical step,” said Pat Mulroy, former manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves Las Vegas and other cities, and now a senior fellow at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas law school.

The agreements create a collection of drought contingency plans designed to manage and minimize the effects of declining flows in the Colorado and its tributaries. Some plans were made public Tuesday. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages major reservoirs across the West, is expected to release others Wednesday.

A nearly two-decade-long drought has drained the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, to alarmingly low levels. The Bureau of Reclamation says the chances of a shortfall in Lake Mead are 57 percent by 2020. If that happens, mandatory cutbacks would hit Arizona, Nevada and Mexico first.

The reservoir never has fallen low enough to trigger a shortage.

California agreed to soften the blow by voluntarily reducing its Colorado River use by about 6 percent if conditions are bad enough, said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a wholesaler serving 19 million people.

Kightlinger said California wanted to avoid having Congress or the U.S. Department of Interior step in and dictate a solution. “We wanted to control our own destiny and not leave things up to a political process,” he said.

Even with the plans in place, the impacts will be painful for some.

“We’ve been letting farms know they are undoubtedly going to have to change their irrigation practices,” said Paul Orme, an attorney who represents four Arizona irrigation districts in that state’s internal discussions on drought planning. “Irrigate less land with less water.”

Orme said farmers in the districts fear they will be affected disproportionately under the plan…

The two major components of the plans cover the Upper Basin, where most of the water originates as Rocky Mountain snowfall, and the Lower Basin, which consumes more of the water because it has more people and farms.

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are in the Upper Basin. Arizona, California and Nevada are in the Lower Basin.

It will likely be next year before all seven states and the U.S. government approve the plans, said Karen Kwon, Colorado’s assistant attorney general. Mexico agreed last year to participate in drought planning…

Water managers have warned for months that a shortage could have catastrophic effects on agriculture and the economy of the Southwest. But the states were always expected to reach agreements on drought plans because of their history of cooperating on Colorado River issues.

“This is the way things should be done,” said Ted Kowalski, who heads the Colorado River Program for the Walton Family Foundation, which has funded river restoration projects in the U.S. and Mexico.

“It’s a much preferred method of solving water management decisions than litigation or politics,” he said…

The drought plans rolled out this week are a first step, but the states must find ways to put water back into the river, said Mulroy, the former southern Nevada utility chief.

Desalinizing seawater and recycling wastewater are possibilities, she said.

“As important as the drought contingency plan is, it’s a tourniquet, it’s a Band-Aid, it is not the be-all and end-all that would solve the structural deficit that exists in the river,” Mulroy said.

From InkStain (John Fleck):

The most interesting bit now seems to be the halting progress toward a new set of rules that allows the states of the Upper Colorado River Basin – Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico – to create a conservation storage pool in Lake Powell. One of the sticking points in planning for water reductions up here (in the Upper Basin) is that if we conserve water and prop up Lake Powell in the process, under the current rules, we risk simply increasing the release to Lake Mead. We risk losing a chunk of the water we conserve.

The idea under DCP would be to create a separate accounting category in Powell for conserved water that’s “invisible” (the word people have been using) to the Powell->Mead water sharing rules. The details here are hairy, in terms of ensuring that conservation is really happening and accounting for it in a way that’s transparent and agreeable to the states of the Lower Basin.

But the fact that we seem to be getting something of this sort, or at least an agreement on the general outline of how it might work, is a big deal.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Officials on Tuesday released draft agreements that include a drought contingency plan for Upper Colorado River Basin states, including Colorado and another such plan for Lower Basin states.

They come as the Colorado River Basin is in a drought dating back nearly two decades, including one of the driest years on record in the 2018 water year, which ended Sept. 30.

For Upper Basin states, the agreements they are seeking to reach are intended to assure water levels don’t fall too low in Lake Powell. Low levels in the reservoir would threaten hydropower production and raise the threat of a curtailment of Upper Basin water use to avoid reducing flows to the Lower Basin below levels allowed under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

The agreements involving the Upper Basin focus on operating the Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs in a way to help shore up water levels in Powell, and on addressing the need for a place to store any water conserved through demand-management efforts. Crucially, such water would be released from Lake Powell downstream only for interstate compact compliance, and couldn’t just be released to meet the terms of an existing agreement that coordinates operations between Powell and Lake Mead in the Lower Basin.

In a webinar by state water officials Tuesday, James Eklund, Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said doing nothing would mean there would be no way to protect conserved water, and Upper Basin officials have been working hard to get Lower Basin agreements on the matter.

“Here we are. We have a suite of agreements they have indeed agreed to, and we are on this path to getting this win for the Upper Colorado River Basin and state of Colorado,” he said.

The drought contingency plan negotiations altogether include seven basin states and involve other entities including the Department of Interior. Officials hope to finalize the agreements early next year and also plan to pursue companion federal legislation that will be required.

The negotiations also have produced a draft agreement among Lower Basin states aimed at boosting water levels in Lake Mead, including through additional voluntary water conservation…

The work to finalize the agreements has led to some tensions within Colorado. The Western Slope’s Colorado River District has been concerned that by reaching an interstate agreement on storage, Colorado could be facilitating creation of a demand management program in the state that lacks the criteria the river district thinks it should contain.

The river district wants any such program to be voluntary, compensated and temporary, with the impacts not disproportionately burdening any part of the state. Some Front Range water interests have raised the prospect of it possibly including mandatory curtailment of uses.

Last week, the Colorado Water Conservation Board directed its staff to work on developing a draft policy guiding development of any demand management program in the state.

Becky Mitchell, director of the CWCB, told the roughly 250 participants in Tuesday’s webinar that all state efforts at this point are geared toward assessing the capability of a temporary, voluntary, compensated program.

“We plan to continue to work with stakeholders on how such a program could be operated,” she said.

That work involves an ongoing, extensive outreach effort, including at an Oct. 23 workshop in Grand Junction hosted by the Grand Valley Water Users Association, she said.

Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller hopes the Colorado Water Conservation Board will adopt a demand management program policy in November with the criteria the Western Slope has been seeking. If it doesn’t, the river district may have to oppose the interstate drought contingency planning documents and associated legislation, he said.

Speaking at a water forum in Grand Junction in September, Mueller voiced concerns that the state appeared to be headed toward finalizing interstate drought contingency documents within a matter of weeks, without having released them for public review. He’s been glad to see instead that the process is moving more slowly, with the opportunity to provide comment…

Mueller said the river district is reviewing the documents released Tuesday and will be submitting comments on them, but they contained no surprises based on an initial reading of them.

Meanwhile, Mueller said the river district understands a time may come when drought conditions become so horrendous the state might need to consider looking at mandatory, uncompensated curtailment of water uses in Colorado to avoid curtailment under the interstate compact.

“But it should only happen after that concept has been subject to very clear public discussion and very informed public discussion,” he said.