Jim Epstein: Clean water is vital for business in Virginia

virginia-newVirginia’s future depends on clean water, but it’s currently in danger. From the state’s booming wine industry, to tourism surrounding the Chesapeake Bay, to our expansive agriculture industry, Virginia thrives on high-quality clean water. According to Ecological Economics Journal, the Clean Water Act of 1972 has added as much as $15.8 billion in economic benefits for Virginia alone.

These protections are now in jeopardy, because two Supreme Court decisions have made it much more difficult to enforce the law. You can’t grow crops without clean water, and yet we’re stuck in a legal vacuum that has left so many of our waterways open to pollution. We have to do something about this.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “Waters of the US” proposal clarifies what waterways are under their jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act of 1972; and conforms to the Supreme Court’s rulings. This proposed rule would protect the streams and rivers that every Virginia business relies on.

The tourism industry employs 350,000 Virginians and generates $18 billion for the economy; fishing contributes another $1.23 billion in sales and 13,000 more jobs. Virginia has the fifth most wineries of any state, and ranks 12th in wine production, to go along with the dozens of craft breweries now operating in the state. Think of an industry, and it probably relies on clean water.

I run a food hub for local produce, and we work with dozens of farms throughout Virginia. As the demand for local produce grows, it’s vital that farmers have every opportunity to grow fresh, healthy produce. Virginia’s farms, which cover 33 percent of our total land area, and our $55 billion agriculture industry – the largest sector of the state’s economy – both need clean water to survive. By clarifying what waterways are protected under the Clean Water Act, “Waters of the US” would protect Virginia’s economy from harmful spills and industrial discharge.

There’s another side to this, and that’s what happens if we do nothing. Without clean water, there would be fewer jobs, less tax revenue, and less disposable income for Virginia families. Clean water is not a niche issue; it has to be addressed for the whole state.

Recent polling released by the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) shows just how unified the small business community is on this, all across the country. The poll found that 80 percent of small businesses support exactly the same protections as in the proposed EPA rule.

Like businesses nationwide, we understand that not having clean water would be devastating.

Just next door, West Virginia lost $19 million a day during the Elk River chemical spill earlier this year. No state can afford this kind of damage; that’s why we need strong protections.

This proposed rule does not give the agency more power over water — the  EPA doesn’t get any power that the Clean Water Act didn’t give it in the past, and exemptions for agriculture will remain in place. What it will do is give small business owners, like Virginia’s farmers, the confidence that this crucial resource will be protected.

Clean water won’t just help Virginia farmers, or the thriving vineyard and brewery industry that have prospered in recent years, or the numerous businesses that rely on tourism. It will affect the entire economy. We can either protect this resource and continue to thrive, or do nothing and risk economic catastrophe. There may be costs to some businesses, but those will be far outweighed by the benefits to thousands more. And not acting could prove to be many times more costly. It makes no sense not to.

These proposed rules will protect every Virginian and will keep our economy and waters safe. It’s time for policy makers to recognize that not protecting this resource is the most dangerous thing we could do.

Jim Epstein is the Co-Founder of Blue Ridge Produce, an aggregator of fresh fruits and vegetables grown in Virginia and markets them to supermarkets, food service companies and distributors in the Washington DC metropolitan area.