The Clean Water Act Is Reaping Benefits Nobody Has Calculated

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


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.

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.


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.

“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.


Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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Dense non aqueous phase liquid

As someone who spent too much time on the business end of CWA and daughter products NPDES and SDWA, there’s been too many dumbass studies on the economics of water treatment and not enough poured concrete for a new clarifier. Economists can’t estimate cost for economic evaluation and decision making worth shit . Why? Because economists suck balls. Don’t take my advice, take the recent Nobel laureate’s advice:

“Nobel Winner Vows ‘Zero Tolerance’ for Lazy, Untested Economics”

Water treatment kinda follows the law of diminishing returns, sure. It’s easy and to clean a waste stream up by 90%. It’s less easy to clean it up by 99%. It’s harder to clean it up by 99.9% and so on.

But cost doesn’t follow along on the same log scale. A huge chunk of the capital cost for building a treatment system is sunk for base facilities and major purchased equipment regardless of how squeaky clean the water needs to be. Same with operations and maintenance costs. The biggest O&M cost driver is flow rate. Not turd borne critters treatability.

For example. A publicly owned treatment works (POTW) will have most of the capital sunk for the initial sewering, solids handling (i.e. turd milling and digesting), filtration/clarification, tankage, discharge and facilities. Let’s say this got the water to 90% clean. Then down the road it had to improve to 99% clean to comply with new standards. Additional units of operations would have to be added. Maybe disinfection. Then 99.9% clean was required resulting in photo oxidation or something.

The greatest cost regardless of fancy pants tertiary treatment like UV/ozone or whatnot is solids handling from the initial build. Even republicans don’t want visible turds floating down a river. Yet we don’t know. Bukaki is big in some conservative circles.

More people taking more shits requiring based units of operation expansion would be an expensive modification, yes. But that has nothing to do with treatibility. So the extra cost is covered by more asses in the seats, so to speak. Or more users to pay to keep floaters out of the stream.

What’s changed is republicans want to privatize POTWs. Private entities would be banks like Goldman Sachs. They would rather have flexibility in treatability when a POTW is privatized. Thusly, having dumbass economists write shit-for-brains position papers stating that it’s too costly to treat to 99 point something percent.

The biggest scam in public to private transfer of POTWs (or liability to asset transfer) is to secure the deal with fairly stringent treatment standards. Then over time and with the help of Trump EPA - negotiate less stringent treatment standards. Then jack up rates just because you can. Flow through, baby. Easy money, kids. Like shit flowing through a goose. Wall Street wins.

Btw, Goldman Sachs among others are big in the 3P (public private partnerships) of water/wastewater game right now.