Commentary

What Are We Paying These Guys For?

By Alex Avery and Richard Halpern
July 15, 2000
Would you go to a doctor who prescribed major surgery before taking your medical history or even examining you? Of course not. You’d be subjecting yourself to unnecessary pain, risking your life and probably wasting your money on needless treatment. Unfortunately, though, that’s just what our government has done and is doing with many of our environmental regulations.

For example, the Clean Water Act, enacted in 1972 to clean up our nation’s lakes, rivers and streams, was adopted without an assessment of the condition of U.S. waters. Some of the nation’s rivers were in trouble — about 10 percent according to contemporary estimates. And, of course, the Cuyahoga in Ohio caught fire once, hardly a positive indicator of aquatic health. But other than that, we knew next to nothing about the health of our rivers and streams.

Without examining the patient, Washington prescribed nearly $1 trillion worth of major surgery, mostly in the form of sewage- and wastewater-treatment technologies. Knowing it was operating in the dark, however, Congress wisely mandated that water quality monitoring begin to inform policy — a mandate that has been virtually ignored. After 27 years, we still know next to nothing.

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the CWA, the Environmental Protection Agency claimed, “Today, two-thirds of the nation’s surveyed waters are safe for fishing and swimming.” In nearly the same bureaucratic breath, the EPA announced that “57 percent of our waters are unacceptably polluted.” Classic Dilbert-style doublespeak. The truth is the EPA hasn’t got a clue.

In the CWA, Congress assigned each state the task of gathering water quality data on its rivers and streams. But the states haven’t monitored their waters. That costs money. It costs even more if a state finds a problem. On the other hand, the EPA itself has done nothing to develop or even encourage meaningful monitoring. In fact, the agency sabotaged attempts by the U.S. Geological Survey to create a national water quality database. What if the USGS found no problem? Water quality could no longer be used as a pretext for attacking modern agriculture, manufacturing, the automobile and society in general. The EPA’s budget would be slashed.

Instead, taxpayers get a shell game. The EPA admits that only 19 percent of the nation’s rivers and streams have even been evaluated. Amazingly, even the rivers and streams reported to have been “evaluated” have not necessarily had their water sampled-even once. According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and other independent sources, the EPA accepts, even encourages, “presumed,” “estimated” and “extrapolated” assessments of water quality. In other words, bureaucrats are making it up. Even when streams are physically monitored, sampling is likely to be erratic, infrequent, superficial and otherwise so limited as to be worthless for setting policy and making regulatory decisions.

The EPA is not the only regulatory agency to fail in its basic mission. Following the dust bowl of the 1930s, the federal government created the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) to monitor soil erosion and encourage efforts to reduce soil erosion from farmers’ fields. While the agency was quick to create an army of “conservationists” to advise farmers, it failed miserably at the basic task of measuring and monitoring soil erosion.

It turns out that soil erosion has been nearly eliminated as a major problem according to an exhaustive 30-year research effort by Stanley Trimble at the University of California, Los Angeles. Trimble’s research, which uses data from the 1930s he found in the National Archives, indicates that soil erosion rates in the Coon Creek Basin of Wisconsin are only about 5 percent of what they were during the dust bowl.

The crux of the problem is the lack of incentives for government bureaucracies to track the problems they are charged with solving. Discovering the truth could put an agency out of business. Until Congress demands that bureaucracies actually find problems before committing the nation to fixing them, expect more Dilbert doublespeak.

Alex Avery is director of research and Richard Halpern is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues. This article is adapted from a longer version in the current issue of Regulation magazine, published by the Cato Institute.