Transboundary Water Quality Disputes -- What Once Was Old Is New Again

Posted on February 11, 2011 by Allan Gates

There is nothing new about transboundary water quality disputes under the Clean Water Act. Introductory classes on environmental law commonly trace the history of Supreme Court decisions arising from Milwaukee’s battles with Illinois over sewer discharges into Lake Michigan, the challenge Vermonters’ raised against New York paper mill discharges into Lake Champlain, and Oklahoma’s objections to a permit EPA issued to a sewage treatment plant in Arkansas. Given the length of time that the Clean Water Act program has been in place and the large number of instances in which upstream discharges drain into and therefore arguably affect water quality in downstream states, one would expect that most of the relevant legal questions would be well-settled. Recently, however, transboundary water quality disputes have arisen with increasing frequency.

Coal bed methane development in Wyoming has given rise to disputes with Montana over salinity impacts in the Powder and Tongue Rivers. Efforts by the state of Washington to protect dissolved oxygen levels in Spokane Lake have prompted a dispute over Washington’s attempt to impose wasteload allocations that would limit nutrient discharges by upstream sources in Idaho. Oklahoma’s efforts to restore the Illinois River to pristine scenic river conditions have resulted in recurrent and steadily intensifying disputes with agricultural interests on both sides of the border and point sources located predominantly in the headwaters on the Arkansas side. EPA’s imposition of nutrient water quality standards in Florida could have direct effects on discharges originating in Georgia; and the agency’s showcase multi-state TMDL for the Chesapeake Bay has recently precipitated challenges by state and national agricultural interests. In what undoubtedly is the most dramatic transboundary claim under the Clean Water Act, environmental groups have filed a petition with EPA asking the Agency to impose nutrient water quality standards and adopt TMDLs for the main stem of the Mississippi River, all of its tributaries, and certain related coastal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

These recent disputes have recurring themes that arise out of weaknesses or unresolved questions regarding the Clean Water Act program. The statute empowers each state to exercise sovereign independence in adopting water quality standards that apply within the state’s own borders (so long as minimum federal standards are met), but the statute does little to address or even give consideration to the interests of other states that may be directly affected by those standards. Transboundary disputes frequently involve situations in which the regulatory burdens fall disproportionately on interests in one state while the resulting environmental benefits are realized largely or entirely in another state, but the Clean Water Act does nothing to address questions of transboundary fairness. Transboundary disputes frequently involve regulatory decisions that have enormous financial and long term planning consequences, but the decisions are often based upon limited factual data, imperfect scientific analysis, and less than comprehensive computer modeling. The Clean Water Act offers no process for seeking to assure that the quality of the decision making will be commensurate with the gravity of the consequences at stake. Indeed, the program largely makes the magnitude of financial consequences simply irrelevant. Disparities between the magnitude of the consequences and the limited quality of analysis and data supporting the regulatory decision are particularly problematic when the regulatory decision is being made by one jurisdiction that has no political accountability to the other.

It is perhaps no surprise that most of the recent transboundary water quality disputes are arising out of efforts to regulate the discharge of nutrients. Nutrient pollution is the largest unresolved water quality issue nationally; and the adverse effects of excess nutrients frequently occur at locations far downstream from the original source. The fact that most of the current transboundary water quality disputes involve nutrient pollution probably makes the disputes even more difficult than normal to resolve. Nutrient pollution has no simple, universally accepted means of measurement. It is costly and time consuming to establish a clear causal link between a given discharge of nutrients and an observed adverse effect; and many of the most important sources of nutrient pollution are non-point sources which are beyond direct control under the Clean Water Act. Unfortunately, this appears to be a recipe for increased frustration and controversy.
Transboundary water quality disputes may not be a new phenomenon, but it does not appear that we are any closer to finding a good way to resolve them.

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