Valuation has played a more significant role in ground water quality policies, however. Under state and federal Superfund programs, valuation is a critical factor in determining the amount of money recoverable for natural resources damages. Valuation has also implicitly (through cost-effectiveness analyses) become a significant factor in determining ground water remediation levels in Superfund cleanup sites and future drinking water standards.
Valuation may become an even more important consideration in ground water protection policy if formalized regulatory benefit-cost studies become a more significant part of developing and selecting federal environmental regulations. Critics of current federal environmental policies contend that those policies should have as their primary objective risk reduction rather than environmental protection. Focusing environmental regulations on risk reduction and subjecting proposed environmental regulations to regulatory benefit-cost studies has been required administratively since the Carter administration. Proposed federal legislation would elevate risk reduction and regulatory cost-benefit tests to the highest environmental policy objectives, raising the policy significance of resource valuation. Such a change would represent a fundamental shift in federal environmental policy.
As stated earlier in this report, most states treat ground water as if it were a free good: well owners are subject to few if any pumping restrictions except in unusual circumstances. Where no use restrictions are established, ground water tends to be undervalued. In most eastern states ground water use is subject only to court decisions, which effectively means there are no legal constraints on ground water development and use. Eastern and western states that require state permits as a condition of ground water use seldom impose pumping limits that take aquifer life into account. Only rarely are current ground water uses balanced against future water needs.
Ground water law in the United States is the result of a bewildering mix of state court decisions and state statutes. While some generalization is possible, each state's ground water law is unique. This overview broadly categorizes state ground water laws primarily as they relate to allocation, and briefly surveys state and federal ground water protection policies.
The common law doctrines of absolute ownership, reasonable use, correlative rights, and eastern correlative rights are based on state court decisions and