I just love it when someone calls a spade a spade.

LaJuana Wilcher, former head of the EPA's water programs and an environmental lawyer with English, Lucas, Priest & Owsley in Bowling Green, Ky., did just that last month at the Water Environment Federation's 80th annual convention. During a panel discussion on the future of the Clean Water Act, she labeled the EPA's methods for measuring success in meeting the law's objectives “fundamentally flawed.”

To wit:

  • If air quality were measured solely by its purported effect on plants, those programs would be no more successful than many water-quality programs.
  • Guidance for setting standards—such as using low-flow criteria to monitor wet-weather flows—is irritational and impossible to meet. So change it. Develop modeling and monitoring methods that reflect meaningful improvement within individual jurisdictions.
  • In the meantime, support watershed management by helping state and local agencies meet permitting requirements. As long as the federal focus is on enforcement, there will be only isolated examples of success.

We've made enormous strides since enacting the Clean Water Act in 1972, when two-thirds of the nation's wastewater received primary or secondary wastewater treatment (today, 98% does). While not all our waters are swimmable or fishable, as former EPA administrator Bill Ruchelshaus likes to say, they're certainly no longer flammable. Given that funding will always be a challenge, the stewards of the nation's waters have made heroic strides in reducing the average citizen's exposure to untreated wastewater.

If we can maintain current treatment and service levels as the U.S. population swells from 303 million today to 400 million in 2042, we're doing pretty darn well.

So I liked what Wilcher had to say. And let's take it further—why not:

  • Factor emissions of air pollutants like mercury—something over which you have no control but that affects the water you treat—into water permitting applications?
  • Or reduce reporting frequencies for agencies whose results have stabilized?
  • And require, rather than encourage, water agencies to cooperate on managing watersheds that cross state lines?

While waiting for the EPA's regulatory and enforcement arms to get in sync (which will be a long wait), you can focus on managing public expectations regarding water use. Thanks to the energy industry's communications efforts, most people turn off the lights when they leave a room and decide what they want before they open the refrigerator.

You can do the same thing for your community's water consumption by “connecting the drops with the watts.” Leaving a faucet running for five minutes is the equivalent of burning a 60-watt light bulb for 14 hours. Each activity is thoughtless waste of a limited resource.

And since you still have to meet certain water-quality goals—realistic or otherwise—we'll provide examples of your colleagues' successes in upcoming issues. No point in reinventing the wheel.

Stephanie Johnston
Editor in Chief