Thursday marks the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. No doubt, the billions spent on the act have improved overall water quality. Yet as someone who regularly rowed on Washington, D.C.’s Potomac River during college, I know that the Clean Water Act and the EPA are still in murky water.
For example, regulating storm runoff is one of the Clean Water Act’s major responsibilities, but Washingtonian rowers dread pushing off from the dock on the mornings after a storm, when runoff flushes heaps of rancid trash into the Potomac.
And it’s no wonder. It’s difficult to imagine how the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (DCWSA), which manages Washington’s municipal wastewater treatment efforts, could ever meet its ambitious goal of achieving “maximum utilization of resources and efficiency of operations” considering that the DCWSA must submit a budget to Congress each year. As a result of this approval process, the DCWSA focuses on managing funds and procedural operations to appease members of Congress rather than on creating the best product at the lowest price.
It’s not that the billions spent on the Clean Water Act over the past 40 years have been wasted. It’s that the act’s regulatory structure makes it susceptible to special interests and bureaucratic inefficiencies. By relying on centralized regulatory processes, not only does the act poorly allocate resources, but it also hamstrings market mechanisms that can efficiently allocate clean water.
We don’t need top-down mandates to efficiently reduce pollution. Actually, local-level problems are best solved by bottom-up, local solutions that utilize property rights and market mechanisms. The aim should be to create situations where polluters have an incentive to reduce effluent discharges and remunerate harmed parties.
The EPA, to its credit, has begun to experiment with more market-oriented solutions to water quality problems, such as the 2007 nutrient-trading program in Pennsylvania that reduced the net impact of farming and real estate developments on the Keystone State’s rivers, streams and lakes.
Improving the ecological health of the Potomac River is a complex task, and I am grateful to have rowed on it in recent years rather than in 1972. But one thing’s for sure: Cleaning up the Potomac will require cleaning up a polluted regulatory system that prevents bottom-up ideas from solving local-level problems.
David Currie is an outreach and research associate at the Property and Environment Research Center and a 2011 graduate of George Mason University.