NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Clean Water Act: Costly, But How Effective?

April 25, 2001

The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 was designed to eliminate pollution from America's waters, but experts have yet to reach a consensus on what constitutes clean water. Unfortunately, the CWA set in place a regulatory system that does not and cannot promise verifiable environmental benefits.

Instead of pinpointing problems and dealing with them directly and efficiently, the act has been striking out blindly for almost 30 years, attacking with equal force both imagined and real water-quality problems, sometimes hitting, sometimes missing, but always gobbling up billions of dollars at a gulp.

The CWA forced expensive wastewater treatment technologies on individuals, businesses and state and local governments everywhere, regardless of their actual water quality. As a result, "zero discharge" replaced the goal of clean water -- at a price tag for the first 20 years of $540 billion.

In the first hearings on the CWA, William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, urged Congress not to short-circuit the fundamental logic of problem solving but to determine the nature and scope of the water-quality problem, analyze the causes, and apply appropriate remedies to specific, documented deficiencies. Congress replied that the purpose of the CWA is to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation's waters," but it did not define "integrity."

Since 1972, the United States has spent $600 billion on wastewater technologies. In contrast, we have spent $1 trillion for air-quality monitoring in the last eight years alone, but since 1972 we have allocated just $25 million to monitor our waters. The only way to ensure the quality of our nation's water is to commit the necessary resources to gathering sufficient information for a sound water-quality program grounded in science. A true and complete national water-quality inventory will take a full 20 years just to make a proper start.

Source: Richard A. Halpern, "1491 and All That," American Outlook, November/December 2000, Hudson Institute.


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