Severe pollution at the Detroit River helped push through the Clean Water Act. Look at it now.
Photo: AP

The Clean Water Act has really helped the U.S. get its shit together. In fact, between 1972 and 2001, the share of U.S. waters clean enough to be fished increased 12 percent. That’s according to a study published in September that took the most comprehensive look yet at the outcome of this landmark rule. A partner study out Monday highlights the reality that all this regulation comes at a cost, though—a cost that may even outweigh the benefits.

However, the pair of studies from Iowa State University and the University of California, Berkeley, hints that these cost-benefit analyses may be missing some key benefits of clean water regulation. In a time when President Donald Trump is rolling back environmental regulation under the guise of high cost, perfecting that cost-benefit analysis formula could be key.

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Since the Clean Water Act became law in 1972, most pollutants regulated under it (think fecal bacteria and industrial waste) have declined. The authors analyzed data including 50 million water quality measurements around the U.S. collected from 1962 to 2001 to reach the conclusion that water pollutants have “have fallen substantially.” In theory, then, the act is working.

But Keiser noticed while conducting that study that the costs seemed to be outweighing the benefits. Since 1960, government and industry have invested more than $1 trillion to address water pollution. The second study, looked at 20 previous evaluations of water pollution policies, found this cost exceeds the median benefits by a factor of nearly three.

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Some of the 20 analyses this study zooms in on are funded by the government; others are from researchers like Keiser. They all help influence policy eventually. And overall, they find that regulating water quality doesn’t seem to be worth it. 

That’s a problem.

“Good regulations, good policies, are ones in which the benefits outweigh the costs,” said David Keiser, an economics professor at Iowa State who co-authored the studies, to Earther.

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At the same time, Keiser and his colleagues found that the way analyses have measured benefits is often weak. While analyses have looked at the way pollution declines as a result of policy, they don’t always weigh how that benefits human health and what that ultimately means for the economy (even though we already know improving public health supercharges the economy).

That’s in part what Keiser and the rest of the authors are critiquing. The Clean Water Act and similar regulations like the Waters of the United States Rule are clearly necessary, but Keiser believes less money could be spent more effectively. Having a fuller picture of the costs and benefits would help achieve that.

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“There is potentially a number of categories [of benefits] not measured that need much more further examination,” he went on. “Whenever health is impacted by pollution, those benefits are really large.”

Those health benefits can jump particularly high for communities closest to any waterways seeing positive change from the Clean Water Act, Keiser said—especially for communities of color or low-income neighborhoods plagued by pollution and poor health outcomes.

Considering those benefits may show us that environmental regulations are worth far more than anybody could realize.

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