On water quality, New York pursues big experiment

In a 1932 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court famously opined that

a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.

From that line comes the idea that the U.S. states can function as “laboratories of democracy”.

With the change in U.S. national government that we formalized Friday, there has been much talk among my colleagues working in water – faculty and students at the UNM Water Resources Program where I teach and with friends out in the water management community – about where the locus of action will be in the next few years.

I’ve argued that much authority, especially over water quantity, is already vested with the states rather than the national government. An interesting story out of New York suggests that state’s willingness to go full-on “laboratory of democracy” in the area of water quality as well:

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he wants to address problems … with a $2 billion proposal to improve water quality in the Buffalo Niagara region and the rest of New York State.

Part of the money would be spent on projects beyond gray infrastructure – like replacing water and sewer lines and expanding wastewater plants – and instead pay for ways to prevent water pollution in the first place, proponents said.

The spending Cuomo called for in his State of the State speech last week shocked environmental activists.

“This was an amazing proposal,” said Jessica Ottney Mahar, policy director for the Nature Conservancy. “The level of funding is exciting, and frankly, it surprised me.”



  1. Actually in some areas of states concern about water pollution far predates any concern about it by the federal government. In the town where I live the river is a major feature and a district to protect the river was set up by the state (Tx) in 1939. In the 1980s all you needed to build a house outside the city limits was a permit for septic from the river agency. Of course this then varies from area to area depending on the importance of rivers versus other things. So at least some efforts on water predate the Clean Water act significantly. States of course also typically control ground water use. The local ground water district was set up in 1991. So at least in these areas Tx is ahead of Ca on the issues. (of course the recent drought in Ca might well be compared to the drought of the 1950s in Ca all be it in parts of Tx (San Angelo area in particular) there were recent significant drought where a couple of reservoirs dried up completely.

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