Abel Wolman Lecture

2012 Lecture: Tradeoffs in Water Quality Management: Risk, Economics, and Equity

Dr. Michael Kavanaugh
Principal Geosyntec Consultants, Oakland, CA 

4:00 p.m.
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
National Academy of Sciences Keck Center
Washington, DC

Degradation of the quality of the nation’s aquatic resources has often been an unfortunate consequence of economic progress. Along with many past instances of unsustainable waste disposal practices across the nation, there are likewise many success stories. These include elimination of acute water‐ borne diseases and delivery of safe drinking water, mitigation of surface water degradation through advances in wastewater treatment, and most recently, protection and restoration of groundwater resources that have been degraded by anthropogenic discharges.

In the twenty‐first century, policies aimed at protecting water resources in the U.S. and other developed nations have entered a new phase. This new setting features more complex tradeoffs between environmental and health risks, cost‐effective reductions in incremental risk, and ensuring equitable allocation of financial resources applied to mitigate risks to human health and the environment. Water quality management decisions are further complicated by ever‐increasing sensitivity of monitoring and detection systems, and the challenges of communicating sophisticated and nuanced risks to a skeptical public in a litigious world. Risk, economics, and equity are increasingly interconnected in many water quality management decisions where the time and geographic boundaries of decision making continue to expand beyond an individual project.

Drawing on some of his four decades of experience as a consulting engineer, Dr. Kavanaugh will explore the tradeoffs facing water quality managers and other decision makers in three sectors; a) protection and restoration of contaminated groundwater resources, b) control of trace contaminants in the aquatic environment, and c) planned or unplanned (de facto) potable reuse of wastewater. In each of these sectors, the inevitable tradeoffs between the level of residual risk, cost, and equitable allocation provoke controversies that may require use of creative alternative dispute resolution strategies, rather than extensive delays in decision making or lengthy legal actions. 

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