Less Regulation, More Protection Communities Should Be Free to Meet Environmental Mandates Their Own Way

Article excerpt

AMERICAN voters are increasingly demanding less federal regulation while aggressively telling the Republican Congress they want more environmental protection.

A democratic paradox? Not at all.

To restore and protect our air, water, soils, and birds and other animals, we need rigorous national standards. But there is no immutable law that says such standards must be reached through reams of detailed, cookie-cutter instruction codes.

Instead, wouldn't it be far better to simply set a national goal and then invite businesses and communities to reach that goal in whatever way they choose? Not only would it be; it already is.

This "virtual regulation" approach originated in the Netherlands, where the Dutch parliament in The Hague sets, for example, clean-water goals through formal debate. The Environmental Ministry then negotiates with industrial sectors, signing contracts and setting out timetables for reaching those goals. Local industries and communities, however, remain free to choose their own path to clean-water compliance, whether it be source reduction, recycling, reuse, conservation, control technology, whatever works best.

When I brought this approach to Washington in January 1993, skeptics told me that, sure, "virtual regulation" might work for a small, quiet, homogenous country like the Netherlands, but it could never work in the brawling, sprawling, litigious hothouse of American politics. We gave it a try anyway. Recently, some encouraging patterns have begun to emerge.

New York's approach

In 1993 New York City was hit with a federal mandate to build new filtration plants for water coming from its Catskill Mountain Aqueduct. Instead of rushing into a $5 billion construction program, the city tackled the problem at its source: pollution originating on the rural watersheds in the Catskills. It then worked out a deal to pay for farm- waste and waste-water treatment facilities that the rural communities could not afford.

As a result, the federal standard was met at one-quarter the estimated cost, with benefits for both urban and rural communities. In short: strong protection, light regulation.

In California, the fisheries of San Francisco Bay are collapsing from massive water diversions from the river systems that feed it. The old regulatory approach would have been to entangle 100 cities and irrigation districts in a federal permit process that reduces water use across the board.

Instead, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal agencies set a simple but essential goal: the minimum amount of water that must reach the Bay to restore salmon runs. …

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