Guest Post: The Clean Water Act -- Beyond Tangible Benefits

This post was authored by Naveen Adusumilli, an NRDC Science Fellow and Economist

I grew up in Hyderabad, India -- a place that once had more than 300 small and large lakes. Years later, while I was spending my summer break with my parents, my dad and I took a ride around our town just to enjoy one of those beautiful sunny days. After a couple of miles, he pointed at a sea of apartment buildings and asked, do you remember that place?  Hmmm, No! Then it struck me, it was one of the lakes that my dad and I used to visit, sit down and chat for hours when I was a kid. It was GONE!! I was so disappointed. It seems it had become polluted and no one wanted to have a dirty lake in their backyard. 

My dad did what he could to keep me close to nature, taking me to the lakes and showing me the beauty of those pristine waters. I got lost somewhere in my attempt growing up. We had taken countless such trips earlier but that trip on a Saturday evening brought back in me the passion and love for the nature. I went on to do a PhD in natural resource economics and joined NRDC to give my passion a meaning. All of my co-workers here share the same passion and have their own story.

Today, I look at ways to better evaluate the economic impacts of the Clean Water Act (CWA), a law that protects the rivers, streams, and lakes of the nation from being polluted and providing benefits through availability of cleaner water resources for drinking, recreation, and wildlife. October 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of this great initiative. During its tenure, the CWA substantially contributed to the economy. For example, recreational activities associated with clean waters – such as fishing and boating -- added several billions of dollars through market participation, i.e., either through purchase of fishing or boating licenses, equipment and other trip related costs. The most recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey indicates that, in 2011, fishing, hunting and wildlife watching added $145 billion to the economy.  In addition to these kinds of recreational market values, the CWA has also provided economic benefits through improving navigation and reducing input and output production costs. Moreover, I have not even mentioned the intangible benefits of having clean waters. And by the way, to those beer drinkers just like me out there, we need clean water to make beer too, as my colleague Karen Hobbs has blogged.

I wish we had something similar that could have saved that lake in Hyderabad.  I consider the CWA as one of the most important initiatives to protect not just lakes, rivers and streams of the nation, but those memories of a son spending time with his father. Now, how much are those memories worth? Can we have a dollar amount for that? Can a cost-benefit analysis evaluate its value? Absolutely not!! So, my research at NRDC is only a small part of the bigger initiative to push back against efforts that undermine the value of the CWA to the economy.  We all should be so glad that the CWA has protected our waters for four decades and will continue to do so.  I plan to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the CWA by taking my two-year old, Dhruv, fishing in a creek that we have near our house. Hope you all can find exciting ways to celebrate the anniversary of the CWA.

Related Issues
Drinking Water

Related Blogs