UC Berkeley professor co-authors study revealing that Clean Water Act reduced pollution in US waterways

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Despite doubts about its benefits, the Clean Water Act substantially reduced pollution in U.S. waterways, according to research from UC Berkeley and Iowa State University professors.

The Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, regulates the discharge of pollutants into U.S. surface waters, including rivers, lakes and wetlands. The research, which analyzed data gathered from 240,000 sites between 1962 and 2001, found there was an increase in water quality partly because of the Clean Water Act. The research also found that the number of rivers safe for fishing increased by 12 percent from 1972 to 2001.

“What is so impressive about this research is that it is a clever application of big data to document something we all hope – that innovative environmental protection can not only safeguard the environment — but actively lead to its restoration,” said Daniel Kammen, professor of energy and chair of the campus Energy and Resource Group, in an email.

Campus agricultural and resource economics associate professor Joseph Shapiro and Iowa State University economics assistant professor David Keiser reviewed 20 economic studies to determine the Clean Water Act’s costs and benefits. Although Shapiro and Keiser’s data analysis showed the Clean Water Act reduced water pollution, the economic studies showed its costs outweigh the benefits.

Shapiro said these economic studies may have understated the benefits of water quality. Some of the potential benefits of the Clean Water Act — such as health improvement due to clean water or communities enjoying clean local rivers — are not easily calculated, according to Shapiro.

The Clean Water Act is under threat because of President Donald Trump’s goals to roll back environmental regulations. In January, the Trump administration suspended the Clean Water Rule, which was issued under the authority of the Clean Water Act in 2015. The rule regulated the use of pollutants, such as chemical fertilizers, that could run into waterways.

“I’ve been worried about environmental regulation ever since (Trump) got elected,” UC Berkeley alumna Dakota Goodman said. “I don’t know if this research really sways this concern.”

Despite the economic studies questioning the act’s effectiveness, Goodman, who is studying water resources for her doctorate, said the Clean Water Act is important in jump-starting conversations about environmental regulations.

Goodman added that she thinks the Clean Water Act is essential to protect water systems but must be adjusted and re-evaluated, like any environmental law. She said the cost-benefit analyses of the Clean Water Act have a long way to go.

“The real question is, ‘What can we do to survive?’ ” Goodman said. “If we don’t do something about water, if we just keep abusing our waterways, that’s going to be a lot more of a problem.”

Contact Julie Madsen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Julie_Madsen_.