New Water Proposals Not Supported by Adequate Science

March 7th, 2001 by Leave a Comment

Jefferson G. Edgens

Agriculture, forestry and construction activities have a bull’s-eye painted on them! The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one could say, has farmers, landowners and carpenters in their regulatory crosshairs. What have these sectors of Georgia’s economy done to deserve EPA’s wrath? According to flimsy water quality reports, they are accused of polluting Georgia’s waterways.

Environmental activists have used lawsuits to drive a dubious argument in the guise of cleaner water based on these reports. At the heart of the matter are “pollution caps.” Quite simply, these pollution caps set an upper limit on the amount of pollution allowed in a water body.

At first blush, this sounds like a noble idea, but when the science is examined, much of the data blaming farmers and construction activities is nowhere to be found. In a nutshell, EPA is relying on incomplete water data to set its regulatory agenda. EPA is pushing states to adopt a water quality program based on incomplete scientific data that threatens property rights and changes land use planning.

EPA’s water science is questionable when you consider that estimates of water quality are typically made according to “best professional judgment,” defined as using the best available information—watershed maps and little or no actual monitoring. A U.S. General Accounting Office report found that only six states had sufficient information for non-point sources of pollution. In the latest figures for Georgia, 14 percent of river miles were assessed, or about 10,000 miles. Of these miles, 1,700 used evaluated data or “best professional judgment.”

Moreover, the percentage of impaired waters may be inflated because EPA gives undue weight in their overall assessments to “hot-spots” where known water pollution occurs. Most problematic is that a large amount of water “impairment”—the National Academy of Sciences estimates 25 to 60 percent—may be due to natural causes, having nothing to do with agricultural or any other type of human activity. In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey questions EPA’s science, as does the environmental group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Over the last eight years, EPA officials have pursued an aggressive strategy to target water pollution from runoff. In fact, two EPA officials were recently indicted on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and falsifying documents in a Wisconsin water standards case. Apparently, the officials falsified water quality reports so they could set water standards higher on Indian tribal lands than in the rest of the state. That way, a farmer whose water runoff might otherwise comply with EPA standards could be deemed a lawbreaker as soon as water from his farm reached Indian land. David Holm, the director of Colorado Environmental Protection and president of one of the nation’s largest water pollution control associations, is concerned that any land use regulation based on these water quality reports would be legally indefensible in a court of law.

Out of all of this, and seldom mentioned, are the costs of implementing wholesale pollution caps. EPA seriously underestimates costs to states and landowners. In one report, tree farmers would be expected to shoulder costs from off-farm income. One could say this imposes a “water quality tax” on the farmer. George Mason University’s Mercatus Center claims new rules will cost each state at least $250 million per year depending on how pollution caps are structured. David Holm predicts a half billion to over a billion dollars per state per year. Quite a sum either way you look at it. Does the EPD have the funding to meet this cost? No way.

Landowners and farmers are doing much to control non-point source pollution coming off their fields. Georgia also has numerous enforceable mechanisms to control surface runoff in the state. In addition, federal programs exist to reduce runoff from farm fields and forestry activities. All of these programs have the farming community in mind.

Illegitimate or scientifically flawed data is no ground upon which to build a regulatory system. It is certain water quality reports will be challenged in court. Delay is not only unfair to local businesses and family farmers, it also harms the environment because more effective solutions exist that could be implemented at less cost. Before doing anything else, lawmakers should take the medical doctor’s oath, “First do no harm.”


Jefferson G. Edgens, Ph.D., is a policy specialist in the University of Kentucky’s Department of Forestry and an adjunct scholar with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is a nonpartisan, member-supported research and education organization that promotes free markets, limited government and individual responsibility. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (March 7, 2001). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.


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