Americans need to start worrying about their tap water

Americans take for granted that every time they turn the faucet, clean water will pour out.

Yet, cracks are appearing in the system that ensures the supply of safe, drinkable tap water, and the efforts to repair the damage are increasingly contentious. Exhibit A is a set of rules proposed in April by the Environmental Protection Agency called Waters of the U.S., which would extend protections to the sources of drinking water for more than 100 million Americans.

These common-sense measures to guarantee basic health and safety have been met with a ferocious campaign from opponents who often resort to willful deception and half-truths. When they aren’t misleading, the complaints read like boilerplate from the business lobby: the costs are excessive, the rules too complex and government is intruding where it has no business.

The signs of deteriorating water quality are particularly acute in agricultural areas. For example, the Des Moines, Iowa, water works is having trouble controlling the amount of nitrates in local drinking water. This pollutant exceeded permissible levels of 10 milligrams per liter in one of the utility’s main water sources, according to a September letter from water works manager William G. Stowe to the Des Moines Register. Nitrates are especially toxic to infants and at that level can cause blue baby syndrome – a form of oxygen starvation.

Des Moines’s water system spent an additional $1 million in 2013 to filter out nitrates, Stowe wrote, and costs will inevitably rise. The reasons for the contamination are clear: Farms in Iowa and elsewhere can skirt regulations to control the runoff of noxious chemicals derived from fertilizers into rivers. As Stowe wrote:

“The intensive corn-soybean cropping system that occupies much of our watersheds ‘requires’ massive amounts of fertilizer applications and agricultural tile drainage to maximize yields. Application of unlimited manure from growing animal feeding operations and commercial fertilizer and the ease in transporting these pollutants to our rivers through drainage systems has significantly, and increasingly, degraded water quality.Until industrial agriculture is no longer exempt from regulations needed to protect water quality, we will continue to see water quality degrade and our consumers will continue to pay.”

The new rules seek to address the loophole. They would ensure existing regulations apply to protected bodies of water, limiting how much pollution is allowed and establishing a permitting process so that industry would have clear guidelines to establish waste outflows.

Opponents seem to have forgotten that the EPA’s proposed rules were initially sought by agricultural interests, real- estate developers and state and local governments as a way to clarify regulatory ambiguity, caused, in part, by a pair of Supreme Court rulings. Waters of the U.S. would use technical and scientific analysis to say where the Clean Water Act applies and where it doesn’t, including rivers and streams where farms now discharge polluted runoff.

The CWA itself was adopted in 1972 to limit using bodies of water such as New York Harbor or the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, famed for repeatedly catching fire, as industrial dumping grounds. And the law did much of what it was supposed to do. Today, the Cuyahoga supports aquatic life again and New York Harbor is cleaner than it’s been in more than a century.

Trouble is the act has proved fairly easy to circumvent: It has been interpreted, mainly by industry, as applying to “navigable” waters. That reading would mean that polluters only face clear limits on dumping waste into waterways that allow ships, but as soon as a river gets too shallow, those constraints are ill-defined.

Waters of the U.S. would specify that the CWA extends to streams and wetlands that drain into larger bodies of water. It’s a logical effort to control so-called externalities – in this case, when the expense and harm caused by a polluter are borne by the public.

Some of the opposition to the rules is based on claims that the costs would be too burdensome for industries such as ranching, farming, energy and infrastructure construction. This is worth debating, though an EPA cost-benefit analysis suggests that, on balance, the rules would be an economic plus. The costs would involve compliance and pollution mitigation, while the benefits would include greater recreational uses of waterways, reduced contamination and sedimentation, less flooding and erosion and lower costs for enforcing existing rules.

It’s a shame that rather than seeking an honest discussion, some opponents are relying on a misinformation campaign that contains gross distortions and outright falsehoods. To cite a few:

If you want to see a corrective to this hyperbole, the EPA has developed a page of rebuttals called “Ditch the Myth.”

Regrettably, and perhaps predictably, the House of Representatives heard the plaints of industry. In September it passed the Waters of the U.S. Regulatory Overreach Protection Act – the title is self-explanatory – which would block the rules from formal adoption. The bill passed with almost all Republicans in favor and most Democrats opposed.

Maybe the rules are cumbersome and would impose unsustainable costs that the EPA hasn’t considered, as the opponents claim. But if a campaign of falsehoods is allowed to prevail, the tradeoff could be far worse: a loss of trust in the water that comes out of Americans’ faucets.

Greiff is an editor at Bloomberg View.