Editorial: Clean Water: What is it Worth?


This is an expanded version of the editorial that appears in the November 2018 issue of CEP

I’m no stranger to funky water. I grew up on well water in rural Maryland — where a sulfurous, rotten-egg smell would greet me every morning at the bathroom sink while I brushed my teeth. But the importance of water quality was something I had never really considered until recently. Within the past few months, I moved from New York City, which I’ve called home for six years, to Jersey City, NJ. Although my new apartment is less than five miles from my previous home, the water quality in my new state was an unpleasant surprise.

Within a week of moving, I noticed hard water stains on my dishes and glassware and chunky calcium buildup inside my clothes steamer. The taste reminds me of drinking out of the garden hose as a child. This was an unexpected shift from the NYC water I had become accustomed to, which is nationally renown for its delicious taste (and for giving NY bagels and pizza their signature textures).

Clean drinking water is something that we often take for granted in the U.S., but it is dependent on complex, aging infrastructure that consists of a system of aqueducts, distribution pipes, reservoirs, and water tunnels. Delivering on-spec, drinkable water requires a delicate balance of dependable source water, proper treatment protocols, and intact delivery piping, not to mention competent local officials and employees who oversee water quality. A disturbance in any one of these areas could lead to serious issues or even a public health crisis; nowhere is this more apparent than in Flint, MI.

A study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in September quantified the effect of the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA) on surface water quality in the U.S. The authors, David Keiser (Iowa State Univ.) and Joseph Shapiro (Univ. of California, Berkeley), compiled 50 million water quality measurements collected at 240,000 monitoring sites between 1962 and 2001. Their analysis revealed marked improvements in water quality, including increases in dissolved oxygen concentrations and decreases in fecal coliform bacteria in waterways across the country.

The same authors published a related study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which alleged that despite these significant improvements in water quality, recent economic analyses find that the costs to clean up water pollution outweighs the monetary benefits of having cleaner waterways. The authors looked at 20 different cost-benefit analyses conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), private consultants, and academics. In these studies, a “cost” could include government spending for cleanup efforts or money a company must pay to improve its wastewater treatment strategies. A “benefit” could include increases in waterfront housing prices. Of the 20 analyses, 18 of them showed benefit-to-cost ratios of much less than 1.

Keiser and Shapiro argue that these economic analyses underestimate many of the underlying benefits of clean waterways. For example, the analyses all assume that human health is unlikely to be impacted by the cleanup of rivers and lakes because water must undergo intense purification before being consumed. The analyses also fail to take into account the effect that surface water pollution can have on groundwater. This is extremely important as groundwater contributes over a third of all water used for public supply.

The authors conclude that more research is needed to fine-tune cost and benefit estimates to more conclusively determine the net benefits of surface water quality.

This begs the question, is it truly possible to assign a monetary value to clean waterways? And, should we try? In many parts of the U.S., we are able to trust that the water we drink, the lakes we swim in, and the fish we consume from our local rivers will not make us sick. What is that sense of wellbeing worth?

In thinking about my own, very trivial water woes in New Jersey, the cost to filter and purify my water will almost certainly exceed the measurable benefits of doing so (e.g., better tasting water will not notably improve my apartment’s resale value). Despite that, I have opted to buy a filter pitcher in an attempt to improve the taste.

The problem of water pollution is not something that will go away anytime soon, but it is something that engineers should advocate to remedy at all costs, because the many benefits of clean waterways and clean drinking water cannot be reduced to a number.

Author Bios: 

Emily Frangenberg

EMILY FRANGENBERG is the Managing Editor of Chemical Engineering Progress (120 Wall St., 23rd Fl., New York, NY 10005; Email: emifr@aiche.org, Phone: (646) 495-1347). She edits CEP feature articles, which cover topics ranging from distillation and heat exchange to process control and safety, and is responsible for preparing the Catalyzing Commercialization, Journal Highlight, and Safety Minute columns for publication each month. She received a BS in chemical engineering from Villanova Univ.Read more

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