Winter 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 4 // Forum // 4FRM1

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Water Quality as an Issue: What Does This Mean?


Gerald F. Vaughn
Specialist, Resource Economics and Policy
Department of Food and Resource Economics
University of Delaware-Newark

Water quality is an Extension System National Initiative. As such, it looms large in Extension issues-based educational programming today and for the future. Water quality is everyone's concern and important for attention by the social sciences as well as the biological and physical. Some public decision makers feel the problem is so serious that, if Extension can't make a difference in agriculture's effects on water quality, our effectiveness and value as educators are open to question.

The primary focus of Extension's efforts is on agriculture, because farms and ranches are major land users and are among the polluters of water in both urban and rural areas. People in rural America are especially vulnerable to water pollution. The Safe Drinking Water Act seeks to protect only public water supplies. Private wells, serving over 40 million people across the nation, aren't covered by the act.

But "water quality," even "protecting or improving water quality," in itself isn't an issue. Nobody wants bad water. What's meant by water quality as an issue?

Issues aren't quite the same as problems, but rather are the public policy questions and choices that surround problems and their solutions. There is a set of issues that, taken together, form what I believe is meant by the "water quality" issue. This set of issues makes up the National Initiative and therefore suggests the specific elements of future issues-based programming on water quality.

Comprehensive Extension programming on these water quality issues would help achieve the larger goal of overall reduction in pollutants in America's environment. No single law protects drinking water. Instead, there are a variety of laws, some preventative, some remedial, and none comprehensive. Their effectiveness is limited by tight budgets, lax regulation and enforcement, and less than full cooperation between responsible agencies. This is part of society's fragmented environmental protection approach that merely shifts the disposal of pollutants to the medium of least effective regulation (air, land, or water). The importance of achieving overall reduction in pollutants is largely ignored.

Questions Framing the Issue

Here's a list of some questions that frame the issue of how to protect and improve water quality. The national water quality initiative can be conceptualized in three areas: (1) basic public policy, (2) technology transfer, and (3) intervention. Our task in Extension is to help people address these questions:

Basic Public Policy Issues

  • How compatible are agriculture and "safe drinking water"? Can agriculture be an environmentally responsible business?
  • What's water doing to our health and well-being? What's "safe drinking water"? What levels of contaminants should be permitted? What's the acceptable level of risk?
  • Which waters should be protected?
  • Who's responsible to protect or improve water quality?
  • Who should pay damages resulting from contamination?
  • How should protecting or improving water quality be incorporated into decisions affecting water supply, allocation, and pricing?

Technology Transfer Issues

  • Will agricultural "Best Management Practices" (BMPs) suffice to protect or improve water quality? Are proposed BMPs effective? How likely are farmers and other landowners to adopt recommended BMPs? Will BMPs be properly maintained if adopted? What unintended impacts (costs and benefits) to the environment could result from specific BMPs?
  • It will take lots of dollars to put some of these best management and soil and water conservation practices in place and maintain them. What portion of BMPs should be paid for by farmers (for increased profit potential) and what portion by the public (for protecting our soil and food supply, water quality, open space, etc.)? How much cost-sharing should be publicly funded and at which levels of government?
  • Do rural residents know to have their wells tested and septic tanks inspected and pumped out each year? How can farm and nonfarm people use fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals, and dispose of hazardous wastes more safely to protect and improve water quality? In making sure its own house is in order, what government practices could be made safer to protect water quality, such as weed spraying along roads or near watercourses and reservoirs, storage and use of road construction materials and de-icing salts, etc.?

Intervention Issues

  • What should be government's role in addressing interactions between land use, chemical use, and water quality? Should taxes be placed on practices or products (such as pesticides or fertilizers) to discourage overuse and groundwater contamination?
  • What should be federal, state, and/or local government's role in assuring safe drinking water for people? If an area water supply is contaminated or threatened, who should do what? Who should pay?
  • How much remedial action is needed and how soon? What types of treatment and at what points (where)? Apart from individual wells, should remedial action be "at the wellhead" (municipality or private water supply company), or should it be "at the tap" (household, business, or other consumer)? Who should bear the costs of remedies?

Extension's Role

The importance of water quality demands well thought-out approaches by Extension toward resolving this set of issues. Placing the issues and its major questions in a decision-making framework, as above, will help people to reach decisions, take action based on those decisions, and accept responsibility for the outcome.

A knowledge base exists for Extension public policy education and technology transfer. Extension's challenge is to use this knowledge base to help our clientele deal with the fundamental issues that make up Extension's National Initiative on water quality, and, where the knowledge base needs to be strengthened, Extension water quality efforts should include applied research.