Water quality standards: Costs and benefits

Child in Kadunce RiverMinnesota’s lakes, rivers, and streams are valuable public resources. In addition to being powerful symbols of our state, they provide drinking water, recreational opportunities, wildlife habitat, water for agriculture and industrial uses, and more. These waters, which support many species of fish, invertebrates, plants and wildlife, provide valuable services or benefits to people called "ecosystem services" (see the Millennium Ecosystem Services Report on Ecosystems and Human Well-being).

Federal and state laws regulate water quality to protect these beneficial uses. Water quality standards specify the conditions water must meet to protect those specific uses. Measuring lakes and rivers against water quality standards shows which bodies of water need restoration and protection, and dictates how we set limits on pollutant discharges from public and private facilities. 

Developing, implementing, and enforcing water quality standards is expensive for state agencies, local governments, businesses, and taxpayers. But the standards benefit the state by protecting Minnesota's lakes, rivers, and streams, and by sustaining the ecosystem services that Minnesotans value so highly.  

Benefits

The most obvious benefit of water quality standards is that they protect state waters for the ways that we want and need to use them — drinking water, swimming, fishing, irrigation, and much more. However, the standards have other less obvious, but still significant benefits.

Tangible benefits

  • Avoiding future or transferred costs — Pollution allowed into state waters now may result in costs to other users, now or in the future:
    • Restoring water systems once they have become impaired by contaminants is often a lengthy and costly process. It’s generally more cost-effective to prevent water quality degradation than to restore it after it has become degraded.
    • Discharges to rivers and lakes may alter the water quality for users downstream. Contaminants discharged to state waters may have to be removed or treated by those drawing water downstream.
    • Water quality standards limit the amount of solids such as dirt and sand from getting into state waters. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is charged with keeping both the Duluth harbor and the Mississippi River navigable, and preventing sediment erosion saves the Army Corps extra dredging and expense.
    • Wetlands and riparian forests provide natural water purification, which keep wildlife and their habitat healthy sustaining recreation and tourism benefits. Treating water flowing into wetlands and rivers helps maintain the resilience of waterbodies so they could recover easily from contamination (see Verhoeven, J. T., Arheimer, B., Yin, C., & Hefting, M. M. (2006). Regional and global concerns over wetlands and water quality. Trends in ecology & evolution, 21(2), 96-103).
  • Increased property values — Housing prices for properties on or near lakes and rivers often include a premium for high water quality, particularly water clarity. One analysis showed that a one-meter improvement in water clarity depth in 37 northern Minnesota lakes would be associated with millions of dollars of increased lakefront-property value on those lakes.
  • Protecting tourism and recreation industries — A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Census Bureau report (2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation) estimated that $3 billion was spent on fishing and wildlife observation in Minnesota in 2011. A number of academic studies have demonstrated an increase in recreational use of lakes with improved water quality. Water quality standards also protect iconic, locally grown products such as wild rice and walleye.
  • Protecting human health — Some pollutants pose risks to human health. Water quality standards protect human health and avoid the costs related to medical care, productivity loss, and even loss of life.

Intangible benefits

  • Aesthetic and cultural significance — Minnesotans value their iconic lakes and the time spent near them. Some residents' spiritual and religious practices are related to water. Poor water quality can not only make lake water less clear but also promote the growth of unsightly algae and make swimming unpleasant or unsafe.
  • Existence or non-use values — People also value knowing that an ecosystem or species continues to exist in the world, regardless of whether or not the individual will ever experience the place or species in person. Some people gain satisfaction from simply knowing that certain species are being protected or knowing that certain critical ecosystems are healthy.
  • Maintaining water quality for future generations — Some people see value in passing on high quality water resources to their descendants. 

Costs

To taxpayers

Clean water is a public good and the Clean Water Act mandates its provisioning to public agencies based on contribution from taxpayers. The MPCA intensively monitors eight watersheds each year, reaching all 80 of the state’s watersheds over a 10-year cycle. The agency also reports on water quality issues and identifies what must be done to clean up streams and lakes and to protect those at risk of becoming impaired. In addition, the MPCA is responsible for setting water quality standards and adopting them into state rules, which can be a long and laborious process. Then, the agency must work to enforce the rules. The time and scientific rigor required to effectively monitor, assess, report on, cleanup, and implement regulation on Minnesota’s waterbodies to protect them for beneficial uses for the public incurs costs for the agencies and personnel performing these activities.

To regulated parties and communities

New or changing standards have an economic effect on organizations and local governments that are subject to water quality regulations and, by extension, to individuals. The MPCA is required to consider these economic impacts — particularly disproportionate impacts to small businesses and municipalities — in the process of adopting water quality standards into state rules. For example, complying with a new water quality standard might mean a town’s wastewater treatment plant would have to make expensive facility upgrades. During rulemaking, the agency considers the potential economic impacts to that community and its ratepayers, to judge whether the rule is needed and reasonable. Every three years, the MPCA provides an opportunity for public comment on priorities for adopting new or revising existing water quality standards. Both federal regulations and state statutes also require the opportunity for public participation when specific changes to standards are proposed.