Setting water quality goals that
are responsible and realistic
Traditional ways of thinking about resource issues may
be giving way to new perspectives and attitudes about
water resources management. In dealing with the issue
of setting standards for groundwater quality across the
United States, it became apparent at an April
conference sponsored by the National Water Alliance in
Colorado Springs that pending proposals to manage and
maintain groundwater quality for the next decade may be
quite difference from procedures and standards used to
maintain surface water quality in the past.
It was generally agreed by conferees at the meeting
that preservation of groundwater quality should not be
considered an environmental issue. Instead, the
primary concern should be and will become human
survival. It was agreed that assuring human survival
will of course include preserving our environment, but
preservation for its own sake is an unrealistic goal.
Considering traditional water use patterns and our
growing national population, it was proposed at the
meeting that immediate water needs and water use
pressures will inhibit our ability to maintain strict
nondegradation standards in the United States. The
concept of strict nondegradation will be more
acceptable as a "goal" than as a "standard".
With the concern for human survival rather than
preservation for preservation's sake as the primary
objective, a three-tiered, prioritized management plan
might be proposed that would include: 1) consumptive
use.(drinking water) standards; 2) nondegradation
goals; and 3) cleanup requirements.
Because over half of this country's population depends
on groundwater for its drinking water supply, the most
critical current need is for uniform national drinking
water standards to be set by the EPA.
Second in importance is the establishment of uniform
national groundwater nondegradation goals with
compliance guidelines to be developed and implemented
regionally to best accommodate diversity of need.
Finally, reclamation (cleanup) requirements should be
established that reflect a sense of reasonableness in
balancing "social net benefits" against cost of
cleanup. Here especially, the human survival
perspective would direct decision-making differently
than would a strict environmental perspective.
For the EPA to attempt to set uniform ambient standards
across the United States could be a complicated and
long-delayed process. As an interim alternative and
a health safety net the concept of a system of health
advisory indicator guidelines is suggested. While
awaiting formalized standards, such guidelines would
provide needed assessment and notification of potential
human health impact. With such information, local
officials could formulate local procedures and
The advantages of such a concept are threefold. Such
guidelines could be set before all data are in. These
guidelines could be fluid responsive to new data and
situations. And working parameters for many substances
could be set quickly.
The obvious disadvantages are that such guidelines
could easily be contested and would have to be
recognized and accepted for use without benefit of the
impact of law.
It has been suggested that we consider it unreasonable
to attempt to clean up and maintain all groundwater
supplies to meet one set of drinking water standards,
especially when only a small percentage of groundwater
is used for human consumption. A goal to ensure that
all water supplies become and remain usable for the
best attainable purpose might be more realistic than a
uniform standard such as the "fishable and swimmable"
goal of the 208 Water Ouality Act.
In the future, the viable test question may become:
What is the highest quality level to which we can bring
- and maintain a particular water supply that is both
economically reasonable and socially responsible in
assuring human survival.