Studies demonstrate that letting water pollution get worse has enormous cost

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Over the past several weeks, two reports on water quality highlighted the fact that water pollution is an extremely expensive problem, one that government agencies have underestimated or refused to fully address. 

Rollback of Clean Water Rule was based on dubious assumptions

The most recent report, from the External Environmental Economics Advisory Committee, researched the Trump Administration’s rollback of the Clean Water Rule, a rollback that became effective in June of this year. While it may be too early to evaluate the impact of the Trump Administration’s much weaker replacement rule, the Committee found that the agencies made assumptions about the costs and benefits of its rules that were scientifically unsound.

In creating the much-weakened rule and removing thousands of waters from federal protection, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers treated individual streams and wetlands as “local public goods,” as if they were unconnected to other bodies of water. That’s incorrect at the foundational level. Everything flows downstream – small streams, ditches, and wetlands are vital components to a larger network of rivers.

The federal agencies also engaged in magical thinking when they promulgated the rule. They claimed that when waters are withdrawn from federal regulation, states will create their own protections that will be just as beneficial as those at the federal level. A quick glance at the history of clean water policy in the United States shows that not to be the case. Individual states have very rarely created new protections for waters when the federal government loses its jurisdiction. The national government should be setting a baseline and allowing states to go above it, not abdicating responsibility and ignoring history.

These deliberately shallow justifications by the Trump Administration skewed the cost-benefit analysis of the new rule, making it seem as though the rollback would provide much benefits much greater than the harms it would inflict. And it’s becoming more and more evident that the harms of water pollution are greater than our agencies are willing to admit, or at least act on.

Nitrate in Wisconsin’s drinking water is an expensive problem

report released in late October by a team from Clean Wisconsin, the Environmental Working Group, and the University of Wisconsin found that nitrate pollution in drinking water carries heavy costs. They analyzed data from 2010-2017 in the State of Wisconsin, and found that each year, nitrate contaminated drinking water contributed to a number of cancer cases ranging from roughly 100-300, as well as dozens of cases of babies with birth defects. They estimated that the financial costs of these nitrate-based health problems alone ranged from $23-80 million each year.

Wisconsin and Minnesota are sister states with similar population, hydrology, and industrial-scale, row-crop agriculture – especially corn and soybeans. Fertilizer from this type of farming at the industrial scale is the main factor of nitrate contamination. 

We know that nitrate is ravaging water supplies, especially in rural communities and private wells. It’s contributing to the toxification of lakes and rivers, further damaging the ecosystems that people, wildlife, and our economy relies on. While both Minnesota and Wisconsin have taken positive steps to reduce nitrate contamination, the only long-term and surefire way to fix this problem is to change the way we grow food – to introduce crops and farming methods that maintain healthy soil and reduce fertilizer use.

It can be expensive to transition to new clean water crops and farming methods. And it’s essential that farmers be supported in pioneering these techniques to make sure their financial situation benefits along with the health of the water and land. But right now, the costs of water pollution are being paid by those downstream – by people who suffer health problems from their drinking water and by ecosystems that are permanently disrupted. One way or another, water pollution comes with a bill to pay.

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