President George H.W. Bush: acid rain and California water

President George H.W. Bush: acid rain and California water

economics and the environment

George Bush, the 41st president of the United States, passed away on November 30 at age 94. Media this past week has reflected on Bush as a leader and a person, but little has been said about his environmental legacy.

Bush enthusiastically played a key role in the Clean Air Amendments of 1990, and reluctantly signed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act in 1992 – days before losing the election to Bill Clinton. The Environmental Defense Fund played a major role in the two statutes, both of which included the increased use of economic incentives to meet environmental goals.

Project 88 and Acid Rain

Prior to the 1988 election, EDF co-sponsored “Project 88: Harnessing Market Forces to Protect the Environment”. The report, directed by Professor Rob Stavins of Harvard University, was the culmination of some 50 contributors, including 7 from the Environmental Defense Fund (4 of whom worked in its Oakland Office).

Project 88 was written for the new president before the outcome of the election was determined. The Board of EDF, a group long committed to bipartisan and nonpartisan advocacy, included Wren Wirth and Teresa Heinz, who happened to be married to Senators Tim Wirth (D) of Colorado and John Heinz (R) of Pennsylvania. The two Senators became the Chairmen of Project 88, giving it credibility and visibility in Congress and at the White House. (In 1988, there were only 2 women in the senate. In 2019, 23 women will serve in the U.S. Senate so strategic advocacy groups may be reaching out to husbands as well as wives.)


Economist Daniel J. Dudek, along with attorney Joe Goffman, worked with the Bush Administration to turn the concepts of Project 88 into law as the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. Subsequently, noting the impacts to regional and global air caused by increased use of coal in China, Dudek lead the effort to open an Environmental Defense Fund office in Beijing to help China develop cleaner energy.

Dan looks forward to walking in Hetch Hetchy Valley when it is restored.


Project 88 included 36 recommendations in 6 broad problem areas. The White House decided to tackle acid rain, which was damaging forests especially in the northeast and Great Lakes region. Acid rain is caused by electric power plants which burn coal with a high sulphur content. Previous efforts to curb acid rain, such as proposals to require that all coal plants install “scrubbers”, had been politically infeasible due to their high cost.

Project 88’s solution, later adapted in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, was to “Initiate an Acid Rain Reduction Credit program”. Essentially, emissions of sulphur dioxide were to be reduced by 50%. It was not considered important that each coal-burning power plant reduce its emissions by 50% - only that the collective emissions of all coal plants be reduced 50%. Utilities could install the expensive scrubbers, switch to a lower sulphur coal, switch to a different fuel, improve conservation or, somewhat controversially, pay another utility to over comply at whatever price was determined by the market.

Critics assailed the legislation as “paying for the right to pollute”. The emissions market for SO2, however, is generally considered a success. In 1991, the estimated price of reducing emissions by installing scrubbers was over $600 per ton. In 2009, the price of emissions credits had dropped to $88 per ton. (The price today is near zero. The coal industry is declining in the United States for economic, not environmental, reasons as fracking produces natural gas more cheaply than coal can be mined.)

The acid rain program is an example of “cap and trade”, a strategy that has been proposed on an international scale to combat global warming. The acid rain program only applies to a relatively small number of smokestacks, however, whereas there are billions of sources of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide – not to mention no international consensus of how credits should be awarded. Also, many who support economic incentives to combat global warming favor a carbon tax (revenue neutral or not) rather than cap and trade – there are fierce academic debates between advocates of these two principal forms of economic incentives.

California water – the Central Valley Project Improvement Act

In 1992, numerous environmental advocates in California, including EDF, worked with Senator Bill Bradley and Congressman George Miller on the Central Valley Project Improvement Act. There was growing consensus that the diversion of water that had been so beneficial to Central Valley agriculture had also caused significant damage to rivers and wetlands, and that the Central valley Project’s priorities should be “rebalanced”.

The CVPIA was an historic effort to protect and restore California’s wetlands, rivers, migratory water birds, salmon and other fish species, and also to promote more sustainable water supplies. Principal elements include:

·     Guaranteed water for Central Valley wetlands,

·     Flow improvements to aid fisheries,

·     A restoration fund to improve habitats,

·     A mandate to restore California’s Trinity River, and

·     Water marketing provisions to encourage and reward agricultural efficiency.

drip_irrigation.jpg The CVPIA allowed farmers to sell saved water, providing incentives to install enough drip irrigation to reach the moon and back. Crop yields are up, while both water use and fertilizer use are down.


All observers would probably opine that the CVPIA’s reforms have been imperfectly implemented. Nonetheless, the Act’s sweeping reforms changed much about how the federal government manages water in California. The battle between environmental and agricultural uses of water in the Central Valley and Bay-Delta continues today – Congress is considering controversial amendments to the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act this month before adjournment.

Left to his own devices, President Bush may not have signed the CVPIA. He had no hopes of winning California, but the CVPIA was also linked to projects in other western states which he hoped to win in 1992. The CVPIA, now more than a quarter of a century old, is the most significant water policy reform in California, and perhaps our nation’s, history.

Before coming to Restore Hetch Hetchy, I worked for 23 years at the Environmental Defense Fund in its energy and water programs. Trained chiefly as a technical expert, I was exposed to the legal world by both the Clean Air Act Amendments and the CVPIA.

I testified as an expert witness, along with colleague and mentor Dan Kirshner, in Indiana in the early 1990’s when the local utility was inappropriately trying to use the Clear Air Act as an excuse to increase electricity rates. And I testified several times in federal court about the nexus between the CVPIA’s flow improvements and the CVP’s water deliveries. These experiences, and working for EDF in general, helped shape a commitment to getting the facts straight and the numbers right - an essential element in our campaign to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park.

-Spreck Rosekrans