What to do with 88 billion gallons a day

From an address by the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality before a workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Academy of Natural Sciences.

The issues surrounding ground water quality management are more than purely environmental. This is a scientifically complex subject and one that has major economic and social implications to vast regions of our nation. In developing a response to the issue of ground water quality management, we must be conscious of the large and potential impacts that might have to be borne by the American people.

Ground water is withdrawn for public supply, for industrial purposes, and for irrigation in every state in the nation. Withdrawals have increased from about 34 billion gallons per day in 1950 to about 88 billion gallons per day in 1980. Many large cities, including the metropolitan areas of Memphis, Miami, and Tucson, rely on ground water for their supply.

Ground water is in fact a fragile resource because slow movement and limited mixing may provide little opportunity for chemical or biological breakdown of various types of residuals. The potential sources of pollution involved in ground water quality management are widespread and varied. These include such diversely found and traditional sources as septic tanks and agricultural practices, highway de-icing, pipelines, underground storage tanks, and various types of waste disposal facilities.

In light of the existing local, state, and federal programs and variations in local needs and conditions, the development of local and state ground water quality management policy should be premised on several principles.

* First, not all ground water is of a quality that is suitable for all uses because of its naturally occurring quality. Consequently, I believe it is not good policy to have a goal of making all ground water suitable for all uses.

Each water use is sensitive to different pollutant levels, and water quality in a particular area or at a particular time may improve for one purpose but worsen for another. For example, sufficient dissolved oxygen is critical to fish and other aquatic life but of little significance to drinking water supplies or swimming. On the other hand, the presence of coliform bacteria - indicators of sewage and possible pathogenic microorganisms - is a classic water pollution measure for drinking water supplies and aquatic life, but they would mean less to recreational or commercial boating uses of a waterway. For a given water pollutant, the ''critical concentration'' at which one use begins to be impaired may be quite different from the level at which another use is affected.

* Second, in managing any resource in an industrialized society, choices must be made concerning waste management based upon a balancing of the technological know-how of control options and alternatives (including various types of mitigation), costs, and the degree of health or environmental protection needed to protect the interest of the general public. We should use caution to avoid instituting a water quality management system that regulates the quantities and allocations of water in addition to the stated objective of protecting the quality of water.

* Third, it must be recognized that the protection of ground water quality may involve competing national, state, corporate, and individual interests.

The coal slurry pipeline provides an example of the many factors that may be involved in ground water quality management. Since slurry water is not recyclable, it may have environmental consequences on specific regions. This occurs where the demands on local water conditions may be pronounced as in arid regions. Trade and national security are involved in that inland transportation costs may act as a deterrent on increased exports of coal. Coal exports add $6 billion to foreign trade revenues and account for some 50,000 jobs. Energy independence requires that we minimize our dependence on imported crude oil which for some uses can be replaced by coal. The pipeline may offer the potential to improve the economics of coal use by reducing transportation costs.

As often happens, there are losers to a policy that offers improvements to the nation. The railroads argue that pipelines will not be cheaper than rail transportation and will result in substantial redistribution of jobs and resources away from them. Also at issue is the use of eminent domain to allow federal preemption of local decisions. Since the states already have this power, a major question is should the federal level be allowed to exercise it also.

* Fourth, ground water management should be reserved to the exercise of the people directly affected by such decisions. The state and local governments should be given the maximum flexibility consistent with statutory requirements to develop effective ground water strategies tailored to meet local needs and conditions. Nearly 30 states have begun to develop or are now implementing strategies for ground water quality management. These strategies often involve the intensive development of goals and objectives that reflect state priorities, and mechanisms that are available for coordinating existing state and local institutions concerned with ground water quality management.

* Finally, it is critical that any regulatory actions taken by the federal government lead to publicly recognized environmental improvements. Public confidence in the government's ability to address serious environmental problems would be undermined if after regulations are enforced, and substantial costs are imposed, there are no apparent gains in environmental quality.

One of the major support services that can and should be provided at the federal level is in the area of research for predicting pollution transport in ground water, improving monitoring techniques, preventing contamination from improper disposal of hazardous waste, and cleaning up contaminated soils and ground water.

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