The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. The U.S. had put a man on the moon and I had just finished my undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering in the era of “anything is possible.” Projects like the California State Water Project and Arizona’s Central Arizona Project were well underway in the planning phases. There was even a model in the entry hall of the College of Engineering (UC Berkeley) that showed how we might change the course of the Yukon to bring water to California. Big dams were still revered by the World Bank, and my ecology class (an elective) text book was entitled “Ecology – the Subversive Science.”
It took a fire burning on the surface of the Cayahoga River in Cleveland, a fire so hot it destroyed a railroad bridge-to get Congress to pass the Clean Water Act. These were the early days of the environmental movement, and most of the focus was on chemicals and solid waste. Very few people, if any, were thinking about the consequences of big water projects, and certainly, no one-or so it seemed-could comprehend the consequences of the Clean Water Act and the “free market.”
Much of my early work with wetlands in the U.S. involved some pretty nasty stuff – process water from a tannery, an egg factory, and a slaughter house; landfill leachate, acid mine drainage and ore mining leaching ponds. Stormwater management and CSOs (combined sewer overflows) were still on the horizon. Initially, this work was in the U.S., but in the early 90s a group of Mexicans came to visit, with the goal of designing and building constructed wetlands for the treatment of municipal wastewater. At that time, only about 7% of the municipal wastewater in Mexico was receiving any kind of treatment. The scale of the problem was immense, and most of us had no idea of the impact on the environment unless we were living in San Diego, Nogales or El Paso.
Let me repeat the statistic -even now, 93% of the Mexican population has no wastewater treatment, or only primary treatment. This is essentially true in all of Central America. The capital of Costa Rica has no wastewater treatment; Costa Rican beaches are experiencing the same problem as Mexican beaches. They are no longer safe to swim in. Panama City, with over a million people, discharges all of its raw sewage into what was once a beautiful bay.
For those of us who eat imported food, the lack treatment comes back to us in the following manner. Wastewater treatment is expensive. The cost of electricity in Mexico is 14-18 cents/kWHr, and when faced with a budget shortfall, the municipal mayor may simply turn off the wastewater treatment system and send operators to some other department. When faced with a choice between schools or clean water, Mexican mayors will choose schools. The farmers downstream actually prefer the untreated sewage since it is much higher in nitrogen and phosphorus. If they are growing root vegetables, like green onions that are used in fresh salsa, people in Pennsylvania die from hepatitis.
This kind of experience in Mexico and Central America was nothing compared to what I witnessed in China and India. When I first went to Shanghai for a master planning project, we were informed that only 5% of the wastewater in a city with 17 million people received wastewater treatment, and only primary treatment at that. The raw sewage was discharged into the Whampoa and Yangtze, which empty into the coastal fisheries. All of the metal-bashing industries on the Yangtze upstream from Shanghai also discharged their metal-laden process water into the rivers. You might think this is not our problem, in that you are unlikely to eat Chinese seafood, but here is where the idea that we are all connected comes home.
The free trade agreements and outsourcing of production in the U.S. began with the impact of the Clean Water Act. As the federal and state governments began implementing the new standards, certain industries in the U.S. began to make location choices which were based on labor AND water pollution standards. Textile industries moved from New England to the southeastern U.S., where larger rivers allow a larger discharge of the process water (saltier than sea water and with heavy metals and non-biodegradable dyes. How many of us know what it takes to color cotton blue?). The principle that “the solution to pollution is dilution” drove this relocation because water quality standards were originally based on concentrations. If your discharge met the concentration you would be okay as far as your permit was concerned. Eventually the textile industry moved to South and Central America, India and the Philippines. Why? Cheap labor and lots of water with no regulations. As an example, one of my early projects involved a denim manufacturer that was being forced out of Southern California due to water quality regulations. Mexico was their relocation choice because they would be allowed to mix process water with raw sewage. (Although they were doing the same in California, the standards are much lower in Mexico.)
All of those items which we consider essential for the American lifestyle, when manufactured or grown in other countries, have a price. The environmental cost is not as easily quantifiable but is there nevertheless. The Chinese can make the stuff that we buy because the labor is less expensive, but also because the air and water pollution regulations are less strict than the U.S. standards and are not enforced unless the violations are egregious. In the particular case of China, the environmental costs show up in contaminated food, and children’s toys decorated with lead paint, and in California, in the plume of coal smoke which delivers mercury to the snow in the Sierra Nevada. The American public is becoming more aware of the environmental costs of our consumption, but how many of us are prepared to give up raspberries and strawberries from Mexico, or blueberries from Chile, irrigated with polluted water and treated with herbicides and pesticides that are banned in the U.S.?
When the Clean Water Act was passed, I don’t think anyone foresaw that we would simply export our pollution. I live in a part of California that has relatively clean water and unpolluted air, and I am particularly grateful for the laws that ensure a clean environment. I don’t propose that we change our standards, but we do need to address the economic cost of regulations.
There is a lot more to be done in the U.S. In 772 American cities, raw sewage discharges into local rivers or coastal littoral when it rains. But what if the costs associated with clean-up simply drive business out of the country? Most of us never see the water pollution in India, Mexico or China (and if our Congressmen and Senators did, they might be more supportive of the U.S. EPA). Nitrogen from sewage and fertilizer has created some 472 zones of hypoxia in the coastal regions of the world where these polluted rivers discharge (let’s not forget that the Mississippi has created the largest such region in the Gulf of Mexico). We cannot ignore the fact that what we buy has a water pollution cost, just because the pollution takes place in another country.
If you knew the water environmental cost of the food or clothes you buy, would you reconsider or look for alternatives? This is a fundamental question for all of us, since our personal choices affect the environment. Ideally, our aim would be that the stuff we purchase be produced locally and that it meets high standards or be produced in countries that have similar or higher standards. Shifting the burden to poorer parts of the world is neither morally or environmentally defensible and has proved to be nonsense in a world in which everything is connected to everything.
Our collective awareness of the role water plays in the production of food, clothing and other material goods has greatly improved over the last 40 years. The mangroves of South East Asia are being protected, the Chinese (some) have accepted that the Three Gorges Dam was a mistake, and Biohabitats is cleaning up harbors in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The rise of professional firms like Biohabitats and NSI is a reflection of the increased global concern for the environment. Clearly there is still a great deal of debate on how clean the water needs to be. We need only look to the production of natural gas in the eastern U.S. to understand how our demand for energy affects our streams and rivers. Do we turn off the gas or figure out how to get the gas and keep the water clean? Or should we export the pollution and buy the gas from Libya?