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Clean Water Act turns 50: conference celebrates progress, fosters connections

The Clean Water Act has been a critical tool to protect the nation’s drinking water over the past 50 years, but environmental and legal challenges remain a threat, said Cathy Kling, faculty director, Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. 

For the past four years, Kling has led the organizing of the yearly “Social Cost of Water Pollution” conference, which brings together university academics and economists with their counterparts in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This year’s conference was held Sept. 7-9 in Washington, D.C., and was convened by Cornell Atkinson.

“Economists at EPA are very data-driven, and we saw a mismatch between what the agency needs and what academics were doing,” said Kling, who is the Tisch University Professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy. “The goal here is to build a community across academia and public policy so that we academics can understand the regulatory needs and provide information that can help EPA improve regulatory decision-making.”

This year’s conference was organized by five people: Kling and two other academics, and two EPA officials. It included a plenary talk by Al McGartland, director of the National Center for Environmental Economics at EPA and the agency’s chief economist for the past 30 years. 

“We are very excited about this renewed effort by Professor Kling and colleagues to work directly with us, to better understand our challenges, and ultimately to improve our assessment of water quality benefits,” McGartland said. “A big challenge for EPA economists is to inform decision-makers and the public about the benefits and costs of EPA policy options. Assessing the benefits of water quality improvements is particularly challenging.  Our goal is to have quality economics and other sciences to allow quality, evidence-based decision-making.  Without the research community developing methods and models, we would fail.”

When the Clean Water Act was signed in 1972, it represented a sea change in the way the nation viewed the costs and benefits of industry and natural resources. The most famously polluted river, the Cuyahoga in Cleveland, Ohio, had been used as a dumping ground for the steel mills that lined the river. Pollution from oil and other toxic chemicals led to the river catching fire a dozen times over 100 years, most recently in 1969. The burning river became a symbol for those pushing the federal government to pass the Clean Water Act, which empowered the EPA to regulate the industry and protect the nation's waterways. 

“While the Cuyahoga was the most visible example, that sort of excessive pollution of our water bodies was very common,” Kling said. “The Clean Water Act and the resulting regulations EPA put into place have tremendously cleaned up pollution problems coming out of industrial sources. Our waters are much, much cleaner.”

Today, the biggest sources of water pollution are excessive nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, which come from municipal sewer systems, stormwater runoff, and farming, Kling said. This type of pollution causes algal blooms that harm both aquatic systems and water quality, and it is not regulated under the Clean Water Act. 

Another threat to water quality comes from legal challenges to the EPA’s regulatory authority, Kling said. Sally Katzen, a professor of administrative law at New York University, spoke at the conference about the implications of the recent Supreme Court decision, West Virginia v. EPA, which restricted the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions. Though the case centered on the Clean Air Act, similar judicial reasoning could be used to limit the Clean Water Act, she said. 

Even so, many attendees felt hopeful about their ability to address future challenges, because the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act includes significant funding for upgrading aging water infrastructure, and because the Biden Administration has announced a national strategy to determine the value of natural resources and to take that value into account in regulatory decision-making, Kling said.

“There are social costs to polluted water, and those costs have not been fully documented,” Kling said, citing healthcare costs associated with drinking or swimming in polluted water, higher taxes to clean polluted municipal water, and environmental costs. “And there are benefits to having a clean, healthy natural world that is not fully accounted for in federal decision-making. The goal of this conference is to develop teams to fill in those gaps, in close cooperation with EPA, so that when that information is available, EPA can use it in policymaking.”

Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for Cornell Atkinson.

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