Dollars down the drain? Investing in water quality

Mary Grace Pawson, P.E.
Project Manager
Harris & Associates
Concord, California

Since the 1970s, public works agencies and utilities have made vast investments in protecting and restoring the quality of "public waters." Beginning with the Clean Water Act, legislation at the federal, state and local levels has consistently supported improvements to drinking water quality, wastewater quality and stormwater quality.

These legislated improvements have been supported by large public investments:

  • The US EPA estimates it has invested over $75 billion in sewage treatment nationwide. (US EPA website)
  • Californians have recently approved nearly $3 billion for the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem alone. (Proposition 204 [1996] and Proposition 13 [2000])
  • Local agencies are increasingly turning to stormwater utility rates to fund local stormwater programs, with budgets in excess of $1,000,000 for larger jurisdictions.
Public works professionals are frequently called upon to:
  • Implement the mandated quality improvements.
  • Capture their agencies' "fair share" of state and federal funds.
  • Secure the local share investment.
Given the magnitude of investment and the difficult task of assuring that local implementations are appropriate, questioning the current pattern of legislation and investment is inevitable. The dialogue can be particularly daunting because it is often framed in a language of values uncomfortable for technical professionals. Clean water and healthy people and ecosystems are "good." A hard-nosed focused on economics is at best "short-sighted" (and most public works staff have probably had harsher terms directed toward them).

Using the following three questions, this article offers possible strategies for managing future local investment.

Question 1: Are we safer and healthier?
Absolutely. The investment in improving the quality of our water has paid enormous dividends in both improved public health and environmental health. Outbreaks of acute water-borne diseases are virtually unknown in the United States reflecting positively on the investments we make in potable water quality. Environmental water quality measures, particularly biological contamination controlled by regulated dischargers, have also improved enormously in the past thirty years.

Indeed, the success of the front-line water quality improvement programs has, to some extent, helped bring us to our current state. With point-source dischargers increasingly compliant with the Federal Clean Water Act, the focus has shifted to non-point sources of pollution. The water quality monitoring undertaken by agencies that treat water has provided us with an increasingly large database and far better understanding of the complex relationship between human activities and environmental water quality.

Question 2: Are we using the best tools?
Maybe not. Arguably, the fundamental tool used to advance water and environmental quality in the United States today is legislation. Regulations with the force of law (and lawsuits used to back them up) have created an environment that dictates enormous expense, often without an understanding of the actual benefits received from the expenditure.

The resulting adversarial relationship between regulators, permittees, and a public increasingly wary of both, can lead to impossible rules, expensive compliance solutions, and further mistrust.

The nature of the relationships is further complicated by the fact that watersheds rarely respect political boundaries. Divisions used to define local governments and compliance with accounting rules often frustrate apparently logical attempts to better regulate and control water quality. With elected officials and staff accountable to "their ratepayers," a single agency's ability to undertake regional programs ultimately beneficial to the public at large is severely limited. So, it may be simply expedient to construct "our solution" rather than venture into a watershed-based program where all the stakeholders have vastly different goals and concerns.

Question 3: Can we better direct investment in the future?
Of course. Historically, water quality improvement programs have invested in constructed solutions. When the goal was improved control of point of pollution sources, this strategy was appropriate and effective. According to the San Francisco Estuary Institute, "a progressive series of management actions (such as wastewater treatment improvements) have successfully reduced the inputs of these contaminants from discrete sources." (Pulse of the Estuary, Monitoring and Managing Contamination in the San Francisco Estuary 1993-99, page 7)

However, as effective as these programs have been in the past 20 to 30 years, we now deal with numerous, dispersed sources of pollutants. The easy targets for standard treatment technologies are gone. Attempting to apply solutions based on collection and treatment to diverse contaminant sources over broad geographic areas is extraordinarily costly. The water quality industry (including regulators, agencies, scientists and policy makers) seems to move in fits and starts to pollution prevention and watershed management activities.

These approaches, often endorsed by environmental scientists (ibid), offer benefits across a range of water resources. Better watershed management can improve stormwater runoff quality and reduce demands placed on potable water treatment systems. Water conservation reduces demands on water supplies and can reduce overall wastewater discharges (benefiting receiving water quality). Table 1 below outlines several comparative strategies for investments in water quality, which are discussed briefly below.

Watershed Protection v. Potable Water Treatment. For almost 100 years, the City and County of San Francisco has maintained its potable water supply from Hetch Hetchy and its watershed. Since implementation of the Surface Water Treatment Rule, San Francisco has successfully negotiated filtration avoidance because of the very high quality of its surface water. This effective management strategy has avoided the expense of plant construction and maintenance, and the valuable watershed also protects stormwater runoff quality.

Water Conservation v. New Water Source Development. California's Department of Water Resources has management responsibility for the State's complex water delivery system. In an environment where there is increasing competition amongst a wide range of water users, the Department freely acknowledges that "conserved" water is the most cost-effective supply option. Often delivered at one-half the cost of new-source development in the State-controlled watershed, this supply option can also be accessed far more quickly, given the permitting and environmental review requirements for new construction.

Trends in Stormwater Management. Over the past decade, increasing regulatory focus has been brought to bear on stormwater management. As more formal permits are being written, the program's initial focus on Best Management Practices is, in some areas, being replaced by measurable treatment standards. These standards can lead to the construction of treatment plants for stormwater or can tempt agencies to treat stormwater as wastewater. Increasingly, the responsibility for negotiating the permit and implementing the requirements falls on public works staff. The ability to effectively advocate for management and prevention over collection and treatment cannot only result in savings for the community, but also may provide a more effective method for controlling water pollution in the long run.

By understanding the tools used by water resource managers and by consistently undertaking management and education, as well as construction programs, public works professionals have a significant opportunity to wisely invest public money well in long-term water quality improvements.

Mary Grace Pawson of Harris & Associates can be reached at 800-827-4901 or by e-mail at

Building a Bookshelf
These titles provide positive perspective on appropriate public investment strategies.

Navigating Rough Waters: Ethical Issues in the Water Industry; Cheryl K. Davis and Dr. Robert E. McGinn, Editors; Available through

For the Common Good; Herman E. Daly, John B. Cobb, Jr.

Natural Capitalism; Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins.

Table 1. Comparative Investment Strategies for Water Resources
Watershed Protection — Potable Water Treatment
Water Conservation — New Water Source Development
Urban Runoff BMP Programs — "Hard" Stormwater Treatment