Despite Perceptions, US Environment is Improving

Americans believe overall environmental quality has gotten worse when, in fact, the environment has improved substantially, according to a report released recently by the Pacific Research Institute (PRI). At the same time, each new incremental improvement in the environment will cost more than the last, the report warned.

Americans believe overall environmental quality has gotten worse when, in fact, the environment has improved substantially, according to a report released recently by the Pacific Research Institute (PRI). At the same time, each new incremental improvement in the environment will cost more than the last, the report warned.

PRIs report, 1999 Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, cites dramatic declines in overall pollution levels, and major improvements in the general condition of forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife habitat. While acknowledging the importance of protective legislation, PRI credits material and technological progress for environmental improvement.

Although there are many rivers and water bodies still in danger, monitoring shows the nations waters mostly are clean and have been improving for the past 20 years, the PRI reported.

Some reports may underestimate water quality because states repeatedly test the most polluted waters. In 1996, EPAs National Water Quality Inventory (NWQI) Report to Congress stated that water quality surveys tend to focus on suspected pollution problems in order to direct resources towards the greater risk areas. At that time, the NWQI had tested only 19 percent of rivers and streams; 40 percent of lakes, ponds, and reservoirs; and 72 percent of estuaries.

Data collected by the U.S. Geological Surveys National Stream Quality Accounting Network (NASQAN) shows a overall decline in point source pollution, including a reduction in fecal coliform exceedances. This indicates that municipal sewage treatment plants have been successful in controlling point source pollution. However, the NASQAN data collected between 1973 and 1995 shows that there has not been a significant increase in dissolved oxygen levels.

"The progress in cleaning up pollution from point sources has not been matched by control of polluted runoff from nonpoint sources, including fertilizer and pesticides applied in agricultural and urban areas and from human and animal waste," said Robert Hirsch, Chief Hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

"The challenges in the area of nonpoint sources are great because these sources are difficult to identify and to control. The challenges are further complicated in instances such as ... animal feeding operations [in] ... confined areas, which results in the concentration of nutrients, microbes, antibiotics and hormones found in their manure.

"Because changing resource-use patterns result in changing patterns of contamination, Hirsch concluded, "we must explore the potential impacts of new chemicals, technologies and land-use practices, in a range of environments."

Spending vs. Returns

"We are reaching the point of diminishing marginal return on our pollution control investment," with each new improvement costing more and more, the PRI report said.

Spending vs. Returns

From 1972 to 1994, annual costs for controlling pollution rose from around $50 billion to more than $110 billion (in inflation adjusted 1992 dollars). A U.S. Geological Survey graph provided to the U.S. Census Bureau shows a steady increase in environmental spending over the period. Together with other environmental expenses, the total annual environmental bill is more than $250 billion, about $1000 for each American citizen.

Spending vs. Returns

In spite of overall environmental progress during the last century, the future holds even greater challenges for the water treatment industry. On March 31, the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies and the Water Environment Federation released their report, "The Cost of Clean ... Meeting Water Quality Challenges in the New Millennium." This report details expected funding gaps for wastewater infrastructure to be as much as $139 billion. According to the report, "the funding gap is huge and growing, and local governments alone cant pay the cost of clean."

Spending vs. Returns

In February, EPA Assistant Administrator for Water, J. Charles Fox, summed up these issues by saying, "The challenge is to define an appropriate federal role in wastewater treatment for the future. We need to think collectively about how to change the debate for the future."

Spending vs. Returns

Hirsch, who recently presented a briefing about the future of water quality, said that single resource policies have failed to protect the whole environment by ignoring the impact that regulating one resource may have on another. Hirsch urged formulating future environmental policies that reflect existing conditions, that effectively mix national, local and state protection strategies and that prevent unintended impacts by evaluating single-resource protection actions.

Spending vs. Returns

One example he cited was a study of the use of methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), a common fuel oxygenate, to reduce air pollution. While air quality seems to be improving in areas using the additive, groundwater sampling has detected MTBE in 25 percent of wells monitored. Although the groundwater levels of MTBE mostly remain below EPA Drinking Water Advisory levels, the USGS study highlights the point that attempts to improve air quality can adversely affected water quality.

Spending vs. Returns

The non-profit Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy is a San Francisco based think tank. The Institute focuses on public policy issues such as education, the environment, law economics, and social welfare and strives to foster a better understanding of the principles of a free society among leaders in government, academia, the media and the business community.

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