Under conventional principles of federalism, the federal government limits its regulatory reach to activities and issues of interstate scope and scale. The states are free to act as laboratories for innovation so long as they don’t impinge on the prerogatives of their neighbors. When the federal government requires the states to do something it has an obligation to cover the costs. (This obligation is often unmet.)
The East Valley Water District in the Inland Empire of Southern California finds itself burdened by the cost of achieving a new drinking water standard for perchlorate, and is seeking federal funds to pay for it. A case could be made for a federal subsidy under federalism principles if the federal government had set the standard. After all, there is nothing particularly “federal” about drinking water in and around San Bernardino.
But in this case, the principles of federalism are turned upside down. The drinking water standard East Valley is struggling to meet will be imposed by the State of California, not the federal government. In short, the East Valley Water District is trying to shift the cost of complying with California’s new drinking water standard to taxpayers of 49 other states (plus millions of California taxpayers served by other drinking water suppliers).
Highland Community News editor Charles Roberts reports:
East Valley Water District General Manager Robert Martin testified before a Congressional subcommittee Tuesday on the subject of perchlorate. He is hoping that Congress will approve some federal money to help local districts comply with stricter regulations now under consideration.
The federal government has not set a perchlorate limit, but the state is ready to implement regulations that will set the limit at six parts per billion, requiring expensive treatment for local water districts.
“It could cost our residents about $15 to $20 a month,” Martin estimated. He thinks a treatment system in this district alone will cost about $50 million to $60 million.
The field hearing was held April 10 in Pomona, California, by the House Committee on Resources, Subcommittee on Water and Power. The Resources Committtee has no jurisdiction over drinking water policy. However, Subcommittee Chairwoman Grace Napolitano represents the 38th District of California, and her district and the EVWD service area overlap. In short, this is a local issue.
In his written testimony, EVWD general manager Martin called on Congress to help fund the removal of perchlorate necessary to meet California’s public health goal, which led to a proposed (and expected to be finalized) drinking water standard of 6 parts per billion (ppb). Martin reported that in 2001 perchlorate concentrations ranged from 4 to 16 ppb in 8 of the district’s 21 wells (with presumably no detects in the other 13 wells).
When it became apparent that the State of California would proceed with [a drinking water standard], and when we received guidance with regard to what this might be, my Board began committing itself to financing, design, and construction of the treatment facilities that would allow us to meet the California perchlorate [standard].
The problem Martin faces is the California’s expected drinking water standard is very expensive to meet:
[I] must tell you that removing perchlorate from our drinking water supply represents the most costly single action that my agency has ever undertaken. We estimate that design and construction of the necessary treatment facilities will require us to spend an initial $50-60 million with many years of additional Operations and Maintenance (O&M) costs to follow. Many of our customers are on fixed or limited incomes… This initial capital outlay alone could add $15 – $20 per month to a typical customer’s water bill. This will be a very heavy burden for many of the people that we serve and this burden may be expected to increase over the years because of the high O&M costs associated with Perchlorate treatment.
Martin’s testimony does not address two critical questions. First, do the levels of perchlorate in EVWD water pose a risk to human health? Second, under what federalism principle should federal taxpayers bear the cost of achieving stateregulatory standards.
The first question is readily answered. In 2005, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences reported that a daily perchlorate dose of 0.007 mg/kg-day had no effect on humans when administered in a high-quality clinical study. That corresponds to a conservatively calculated (i.e., probably overestimated) drinking water concentration of 245 ppb. The highest concentration reported by Martin to have been observed in his water district — 16 ppb — is 7% of this amount.
The second question is not so easily answered. There is no obvious federalism principle for shifting to federal taxpayers the cost of complying with state regulations. This is especially so given that the state regulations in question do not appear to address a genuine human health risk.
Which begs a third question. Why should anyone pay $15-20 per month to remedy a nonexistent environmental problem?