The availability of clean water in the western Ozarks is becoming acute. The Tri-States Water Coalition and Missouri State University are continuing a public exploration of the supply issues. The New York Times has published the first report of its monumental study of compliance and enforcement of water pollution regulations. Water conservation is a necessary part of the solution, but conservation can do little without changes in agricultural practices.
The level of Ozark aquifer, which only 20 years ago seemed ample, has dropped precipitously, leaving public water supply managers–cities and private water companies–with the challenge of finding alternate sources of water, with the obvious sources being existing and unbuilt surface impoundments in a watershed that includes parts of Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
On September 17, 2009, the Tri-States Water Coalition and Missouri State University are convening a two-day conference in Springfield entitled “Shaping our Water Future: Working to Provide Adequate, Quality Water Supplies,” which is open to the public for a registration fee of $95 for both days or $65 for one day. Here is the Conference Agenda. Registration phone numbers are (417) 836-6660 or Toll-free (877) 678-2005, or online.
Water from underground aquifers is generally clean, requiring little treatment. But aquifers recharge slowly. As the water level in aquifers drops, the costs of operating the wells increases, as wells must be deepened once the pumps cannot be lowered in the existing wellbores. The rapidly falling levels indicate that future reliance on the aquifer will lead to interruptions in supply and ultimately complete depletion. As a few municipal, industrial and irrigation wells pull down the aquifer, thousands of water wells serving individual farms and households are affected.
Surface water captured in impoundments is a partial solution to the supply problem. Moving surface water from impoundments across state lines, such as from Grand Lake in northeastern Oklahoma to the adjacent area in Missouri around Joplin, raises many legal and political issues, as well as the issue of how to set a price for the water. Building impoundments in the basins of the Neosho River in Kansas or the Spring River in Missouri (which combine to make the Grand River in the northeast corner of Oklahoma near Miami) is a possibility, made less likely because Missouri seems to be sending pollution into the Grand River system via Honey Creek and the Elk River. But the cost of acquiring land and adjudicating water rights is formidable, as is the cost of construction of dams and aqueducts. In addition, impoundments cause ecological damage, interrupt road transportation networks, and require maintenance. Surface water generally requires more treatment than well water to make it safe to drink.
Pollution of surface water
At the same time that we turn to surface water for household uses and many other uses (agriculture, industrial processes, washing all sorts of things), we must look at how well we protect surface water from pollution. In a massive report, the first installment of which was published on September 13, 2009, the New York Times has compiled data from every state to enumerate the number of violations of water pollution permits issued under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), providing maps, charts, tables, and agency response reports for every part of the United States. The online version of this report allows the reader to find non-compliant discharges by zip code for the entire United States.
The New York Times report exposes fundamental problems with the NPDES permit and compliance system. Under the Clean Water Act, which authorizes the EPA to define pollutants and restrict their discharge, states are allowed to have “primacy jurisdiction,” whereby a state agency issues permits and enforces the permit terms, as nearly every state has done. State agencies typically attempt to obtain voluntary compliance, rather than attempt prosecution, which would be very costly. State legislatures are being asked by their constituents to keep the government off their backs, rather than to fund enforcement of environmental regulations. In Missouri, the Department of Natural Resources Division of Environmental Quality has never been adequately funded. It may seem ironic that we can fund law enforcement on many issues (overtime parking, deer hunting, possession of marijuana, etc.), but not pollution of our water supply.
Quickly scanning the Missouri data in the New York Times report, it was apparent that many private wastewater treatment facilities were frequently out of compliance. The nature of the non-compliance could be as simple as failing to submit a sample of effluent to be tested or having a couple of monthly samples showing excessive pollutants in a year. Many of these private plants are quite small and their permits are held by homeowners associations. The violations listed in the reports of each state agency are mostly trivial, but collectively they suggest that our permitting and regulatory system is not working to protect the quality of our water.
Even if all the sources of pollution were operating within their limits, we would still be polluting our surface water and groundwater. The permits do not prohibit pollution, but limit it.
Missouri has not fully implemented the next federally-mandated strategy to control water pollution, which sets the total amount of pollution that can be discharged into a drainage basin per day. Rather than an unlimited number of discharge points being given pollution limits under the NPDES system, the Total Maximum Daily Load standards would require that no additional permits be issued once the TMDL limit was met, unless a previously permitted point-source was reduced.
Non-point source pollution continues to be difficult to regulate. The water flowing off pastures, cropland, rooftops, roads and parking lots, for example, carries all sorts of pollution into streams, which finds its way into lakes and aquifers as well as aquatic life. As we look to surface water for more of our drinking water supply, as Springfield and Branson already have, we have to spend to remove fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides, heavy metals, hydrocarbons and other chemicals.
Some types of contaminants are not regulated and are not tested for or removed from the drinking water supply. We know that hormones and pharmaceutical chemicals are in surface water and aquifers, though acceptable limits are not established for many of the thousands of organic compounds in our water. At some point, this potential source of health problems must be confronted, and the expense of doing so will not be small.
The Conservation Strategy
We’re often exhorted to use water wisely, and we should. But household water consumption is a small part of the total consumption, probably about 25% in the western Ozarks.
The Argonne National Laboratory’s summary of its technical memorandum on water consumption associated with biofuels production began with this:
Over the next 20 years, the water consumed by energy production is projected to increase at a faster rate than that for any other sector. In addition, the amount of water projected to be consumed by energy production is greater than that for any other sector except irrigation.
Geotimes reports that a report of the University of Texas’s Bureau of Economic Geology indicated that irrigation for agriculture accounted for 90% of the world’s freshwater use, with the unfortunate result that use of water for irrigation resulted in the water becoming mineralized (salty) and carrying with it fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. The same article in Geotimes also cites an Iowa State University scientist who says that production of a gallon on ethanol requires the consumption of four gallons of water, though this estimate strikes me as understatement.
This scathing report on water consumption and pollution by Missouri’s major swine producers, if true, is frightening.
This report from the United States Geological Survey summarizes findings about the effects of agriculture on the health of Ozarks streams and groundwater. Agriculture is a major water user, and the water used in agriculture adversely affects our water supply and the health of our streams.
The increasing scarcity of clean water in the western Ozarks indicates that major confrontations will take place in the legislatures and courts. Municipalities will confront agricultural users. The attorneys general of Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas will probably see more of one another in federal courtrooms (Arkansas and Oklahoma have been litigating for years over pollution of the Illinois River and Lee Creek in Arkansas that is entering Oklahoma, and Oklahoma and Missouri have also been fighting over pollution in Honey Creek and the Elk River in Missouri entering Oklahoma).
The prospect of persuading the relatively arid states of Oklahoma and Kansas to allow the transfer of surface water to Missouri seems to be a very tall order.
The Missouri legislature’s commitment to funding water pollution control has always been weak, especially in the face of strong agricultural interests. But we cannot solve the problem without concessions from agriculture.
Most economists, including many conservatives such as Greg Mankiw, look to the ideas of the late English economist Pigou for pricing of resources, in instances in which the market does not adequately value negative externalities, as an alternative to regulation.
A “Pigovian tax” would be added to the price of the resource so that the government, on behalf of the public, would receive compensation for the negatives associated with the use of the resource. For example, a tax to cover the cost of removing the pollutants might be added to a water bill of an industrial user who returns the water to the public with contaminants in it. The higher total price would limit the quantity used and provide funding for solving the pollution problem.
Since Missouri doesn’t regulate well-water production quantities, a municipality, confinement feeding operation or industrial user can put in a large well and use the bulk of the remaining aquifer without paying anything. The only incentives for conservation by the large users are the cost of pumping the water, the cost of whatever clean-up of effluent is required and the cost of dealing with lawsuit in which neighbors try to enforce their poorly-defined rights to the shared water resource. Of course, when the water is gone, the enterprise has no value, but it might pay for itself by that time.
Pigovian taxes seemed to have helped to limit the emissions causing acid rain.
The controversy over “cap-and-trade” proposals for limiting emissions of greenhouse gases seems to heavily influenced by the debate over whether the global warming is occurring and whether it is cause by human activity, rather than a debate over whether cap-and-trade would work.
A Pigovian tax tied to the TMDL program might be in our future to protect our water supply. But the time for implementing a better system for controlling water quality and consumption is here.