We take water for granted. In the Midwest, water is plentiful, and conserving it is a financial consideration more than a supply decision. Of course, in some areas, too much water is becoming a regular concern as rainfall totals continue to set records and flooding becomes an annual occurrence. In many cases, this can be addressed individually, as homeowners and businesses can move to new locations. So most of us don't see it as a problem that impacts our lives. But water quality is a whole different story.
While water quality has vastly improved since the passage of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s, progress has plateaued for the Ohio River. Some aquatic species that were once plentiful can no longer be found in the river and others are far below their historic populations. Periodic health warnings persist. Vigilance and determination are required to continue to try to improve the water quality of the Ohio River, the source of drinking water to more than 5 million people and a much-needed resource to thousands of commercial and industrial facilities.
But the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), a regulatory agency formed by Ohio River states, wants to makes its water quality standards which many states adopt as part of their own - voluntary. Such a move will wreak regulatory havoc and erode public confidence in a major water source.
If the standards become voluntary, states will be free to adopt whatever standards they wish - ORSANCO's or their own. A significant risk is that upriver states will adopt significantly weaker standards to accommodate local business interests, causing water quality for downriver states to degrade. This could lead to higher stress on aquatic life, affect recreation in the river and result in higher costs to ensure drinking water remains safe. Downriver states may need to litigate with upriver states whose standards are too weak to protect their downriver water quality. Furthermore, if states don't act when problems arise, then the burden will fall to citizens, who are far less equipped to seek redress.
Why does ORSANCO want to upset the apple cart? The agency is looking for ways to eliminate the public and political conflicts related to its standards it has found itself in over the past few years. In doing so, it would become solely a water quality monitoring and research agency. ORSANCO's commissioners are state officials, U.S. EPA staff, a few at-large appointees and businessmen. The commissioners are well-meaning and thoughtful. But unfortunately, with ORSANCO's proposed move to make adoption of its standards voluntary for states, consistency and uniformity between upriver and downriver states could be thrown under the bus. If the agency chooses to go that route during its June 8 meeting in Covington, Ky., the result would be conflict among states, different compliance standards for businesses in different states and increased costs for utilities, businesses and consumers for treatment of increased pollution due to weaker standards.
An easier, less politically charged and less risky option would be for ORSANCO to make the standards mandatory with reasonable exceptions that protect water quality and provide public transparency. This would require each state to adopt ORSANCO standards through their normal legal procedures. As members of ORSANCO, this should be a commitment each state willingly shares to ensure the protection of our most valuable resource.
Given the seriousness of the pending proposal, we hope ORSANCO's commissioners will decide on a course of action that does not shake the public trust that has been built up over several decades. It is imperative that Ohio River water quality continue to be protected and improved without risk of degradation for the benefit of current and future citizens of all Ohio River states.
Rich Cogen is executive director of Ohio River Foundation, a regional conservation non-profit based in Cincinnati. He also chairs ORSANCO Watershed Organization Advisory Committee.