K-State Calculates Costs of Nutrient Pollution

Pollution by phosphorous and nitrogen isn't just bad for lakes, streams, and other bodies of freshwater. According to researchers at Kansas State University, it's also bad for Americans' pocketbooks.

Freshwater pollution impacts individuals on a level as basic as how much they spend on bottled water, said Walter Dodds, professor of biology at K-State. If you worry about what's in the tap water, you might be shelling out more money for the bottled variety, he said.

If municipal water plants have to spend more money to treat the water coming through the tap, your water bills will increase. If you own a house on a lake that is becoming increasingly polluted, your property values likely may drop. If that lake is a recreation destination, the local economy could take a hit, too.

"Monetary damages put environmental problems in terms that make policymakers and the public take notice," Dodds said.

He and the K-State researchers looked at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data on nitrogen and phosphorous levels in bodies of water throughout the country. Nitrogen and phosphorous are applied to plants as nutrients.

Dodds said that the majority of this type of pollution is from nonpoint sources such as runoff from row crop agriculture across the surrounding countryside.

The researchers calculated the money lost from that pollution by looking at factors like decreasing lakefront property values, the cost of treating drinking water, and the revenue lost when fewer people take part in recreational activities like fishing or boating.

The researchers found that freshwater pollution by phosphorous and nitrogen costs government agencies, drinking water facilities, and individual Americans at least $4.3 billion annually. Of that, they calculated that $44 million a year is spent just protecting aquatic species from nutrient pollution.

"Although our accounting of the degree of nutrient pollution in the nation is fairly accurate, the true costs of pollution are probably much greater than $4.3 billion. Putting environmental problems in terms of dollars allows people to account for the actual costs of pollution."

The research appears in the Nov. 12 online issue of Environmental Science and Technology.

comments powered by Disqus