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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Low but Uncertain Measured Benefits of US Water Quality Policy

  • Author(s): Shapiro, Joseph S
  • et al.

U.S. investment to decrease pollution in rivers, lakes, and other surface waters has exceeded $1.9 trillion since 1960, and has also exceeded the cost of most other U.S. environmental initiatives. These investments come both from the 1972 Clean Water Act and the largely voluntary efforts to control pollution from agriculture and urban runoff. This paper reviews the methods and conclusions of about 20 recent evaluations of these policies. Surprisingly, most analyses estimate that these policies’ benefits are much smaller than their costs; the benefit/cost ratio from the median study is 0.37. Yet existing evidence is limited and undercounts many types of benefits. We conclude that it is unclear whether many of these regulations truly fail a benefit/cost test or whether existing evidence understates their net benefits; we also describe specific questions that when answered would help eliminate this uncertainty.

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