EPA Science Advisory Board Member, LBJ School Professor Sheila Olmstead Talks Water Policy and Environmental Justice in Latest Episode of “Environmental Insights"

October 8, 2021
Sheila Olmstead

Sheila Olmstead, professor of public affairs at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin, shared her thoughts on US water policy and environmental justice in the newest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” a podcast produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics ProgramListen to the interview here.  A transcript of the interview is available here. 

Sheila Olmstead Podcast Montage

Hosted by Robert N. Stavins, A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy and Economic Development at Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, Environmental Insights is intended to promote public discourse on important issues at the intersection of economics and environmental policy.

Olmstead, who was formerly a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, was recently named a member of the Science Advisory Board (SAB) at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  She earned her PhD in Public Policy from Harvard and has focused much of her academic and professional work on issues relating to water resources management. She served a year as a Senior Staff Economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisors, and currently serves as editor of the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.

Regarding her appointment to the SAB, Olmstead remarked, “I'm excited about the work. I only have a vague sense so far of what I'm going to be working on because we're kind of just getting up and started. They've gotten all these appointments processed now, but I'm very excited about the other folks that are appointed, in particular, my environmental economist colleagues like Dave Kaiser and Lala Ma.”

Discussing water management issues in the United States, Olmstead remarked that the arid western states, in general, have greater challenges than do the more wet east coast states. 

“They're also high growth states, many of them. And so, they struggle more with how to meet especially urban demand, given concerns about the natural supply. And that gets even more interesting as we look to the future, with the climate changing as it is,” she said.

Prices can be an effective tool to affect water demand and usage, but Olmstead said that water is still quite cheap in many areas of the west, like Phoenix, where the supply is relatively low.

“There's not a really strong correlation between where the supply is scarce and where the price is high,” she remarked. “And that puts those regions in a very difficult situation of having essentially through the [low] water prices encouraged the kinds of development that are thirsty, without having the tools in the long run to meet that demand.”

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which had serious impacts on thousands of residents over the course of several years during the last decade, is just one example of the water management challenges facing millions of people across the United States.

“We're so much better than we were in the 1970s. The Cuyahoga River doesn't catch on fire and so on, but our remaining major water quality challenges have mostly to do with agricultural water pollution, urban runoff. And these are not things that were well addressed in the structure of the Clean Water Act. And so, we just continue to struggle with the fact that these are really severe remaining problems, and some of them are essentially unregulated,” she said.

Olmstead’s interview is the 10th episode during 2021 in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.

“Environmental Insights is intended to inform and educate listeners about important issues relating to an economic perspective on developments in environmental policy, including the design and implementation of market-based approaches to environmental protection,” said Stavins. “We speak with accomplished Harvard colleagues, other academics, and practitioners who are working on solving some of the most challenging public problems we face.”

Environmental Insights is hosted on SoundCloud and is also available on Amazon Music, iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher. A transcript of the interview is available here. 

By Doug Gavel

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