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Mizzou researchers want the Clean Water Act to focus on drinking water

Drinking water would be at the center of a new proposal from University of Missouri faculty to rework the country's water regulations.
Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
Drinking water would be at the center of a new proposal from University of Missouri faculty to rework the country's water regulations.

Researchers at the University of Missouri are calling for a new approach to the Clean Water Act, and the team wants to start at the sink and work backward all the way to where rain hits the earth.

Attorney Robin Rotman and civil engineer Kathleen Trauth are the co-authors of a study in Ecology Law Quarterly that they say shows the government’s many laws regulating clean water have been ineffective and need an overhaul.

“The reality is that we are getting nowhere,” Rotman said. “For 40 years there has been this pingpong of laws and regulations, and yet we’re not seeing the improvements in drinking water quality that we think Americans should be benefiting from.”

The idea is that people from different perspectives and political points of view can agree that what comes out of the tap needs to be safe and clean. If that is the starting point, Rotman said, then the next steps down the line can come together.

“I think it’s safe to say that there is a common desire to have safe drinking water for all Americans,” Rotman said. “And so we're suggesting that the dialogue start there and build out from there.”

Clean water in the sink means proper pipes, which means safe water treatment plants, which means their inputs from wells, rivers and lakes also need to be clean, Rotman said.

Current laws, including the Clean Water Act, the Clean Drinking Water Act and the Waters of the United States, all have different goals and jurisdictions, Trauth said, and they may focus too much on something like defining and regulating a wetland instead of being part of an effort to reach a common goal.

“Let's not keep going back to wetlands, particularly.” Trauth said. “Why would we talk about what we regulate? Because the point is we regulate to help, in this case, the drinking water.”

Trauth also said current laws focus too much on single-source polluters, like a factory’s wastewater pipe, and not enough on systems that cause pollution like nitrate runoff from farmland.

The proposal would likely see strong opposition. Environmentalists look at clean water from the perspective of maintaining habitat for plants and animals. Agriculture and industry also tend to reject any provisions that add costs or inhibit the use of their land.

Trauth and Rotman said their proposal might face an uphill battle, but it is still worth getting the idea of starting with the common goal of safe drinking water out there for people to consider.

"There’s different perspectives, but if we coalesce around a common interest can we say, OK, how do we fix this? It’s in all of our best interests,” Trauth said.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.