Water Quality in the Era of Small Government

While the Republican presidential candidates threaten to dissolve the Environmental Protection Agency at the federal level, struggles at the state and local levels show building blocks to such an action were stacking for years.

When asked who is primarily responsible for protecting water quality, many citizens in North Carolina respond “don’t we have a department of water quality for that?”. Those citizens are not wrong, but they are placing a large suite of issues on the shoulders of a single agency. And that agency is losing funding and staff.

Defining responsibility for water quality starts with defining the term. As anyone who has thought about water quality and habitat issues knows well, it’s not as simple as dipping a thermometer in a stream to determine water health. Aquatic ecosystems don’t run a fever when there’s something wrong; issues are far more subtle than that.

When asked to define water quality, a leader at the Division of Water Quality (DWQ) who does not want to be quoted by name, stated:

“We try to prevent pollution from affecting our streams and rivers so that we can enjoy them for recreation, we can enjoy them for drinking water purposes, the fish can survive in them … water quality is that which enables all the uses to be continued to be made of those water bodies.”

For the agency in charge of protecting water quality, traditional uses serve as indicators of the water’s health. Note the definition’s focus on pollution prevention as the means to protect these various uses. Read More