We Can’t Afford Polluted Water
(Above photo credit: Unsplash – Tim Mossholder)
For far too long, protections for clean water and other environmental regulations have been framed as an impediment to a strong economy. When in reality, the opposite is true. Water is the foundation of a stable and growing economy and thriving communities. Protecting everyone’s right to clean water is a moral obligation. And it’s also a financial necessity. We simply can’t afford polluted water.
Defending our shared resources from pollution means that businesses and municipalities need to invest in smart water management strategies which hinge on reliable infrastructure, policy, and regulation. Thankfully, there has been great progress with the signing of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill last November. However, the $55 billion set aside for drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater projects doesn’t fully address the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) projections of more than $800 billion in combined funding needs. The short-term costs are daunting, yet they pale in comparison to the long-term costs of pollution and cleanups, not to mention the countless lost opportunities therein.
As an example, there are over 1,300 Superfund remedial sites in the United States. According to a 2015 EPA report, over 50 million Americans live within three miles of a Superfund site. Nonetheless, the program has been relatively successful and helped right a lot of wrongs by cleaning up and remediating a lot of toxic sites. For signs of progress, look no further than to the Whole Foods supermarket on the shores of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, or to the herd of American bison roaming the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Denver. Both of these Superfund sites prove that cleanups work. But surely, preventing these areas from becoming toxic wastelands that require billions of dollars in cleanup would have been the more sound investment.
Until somewhat recently, these remediation projects were funded by a trust paid for from a tax on gasoline. Since 2000, however, the American taxpayer has largely been responsible for the $21 billion in costs. And that is just for the cleanup. It says nothing to the deleterious effects these toxic sites have on property value or, more importantly, people’s health outcomes and the related costs. According to researchers at Kansas State University, freshwater pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus alone costs taxpayers over $4 billion a year.
When it was passed 50 years ago, the Clean Water Act was intended to solve a lot of these problems. However, it continues to be weakened by a lack of enforcement and is often skirted by polluters. A common refrain is that it’s too expensive to be compliant, and that these types of environmental regulations are akin to red tape choking out business. But, what’s rarely mentioned are the lost opportunities related to the businesses that will never be created on account of pollution. Industries like tourism, recreation, agriculture, fishing, and more rely on clean water.
Towns and cities should be tripping over themselves to have the cleanest water and be as environmentally friendly as possible. It would attract more business, as well as more people. That is what is happening in Buffalo, New York, where tens of millions of dollars were spent as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Since that time, the city has seen a huge uptick in water-based recreation, along with several new residential buildings and commercial developments, including a brewery. They are even seeing some population growth. Needless to say, people don’t want to live in a polluted place.
Businesses, too, can benefit from investing in clean water and the environment, as corporate stewardship can be a powerful recruiting tool. According to an IBM survey from 2021, over 70 percent of job seekers hope to work for an environmentally sustainable company. Conversely, a reputation built for years can be wiped away immediately if the company is seen as jeopardizing people’s right to clean water.
When viewed through the lens of environmental justice, it is almost impossible to calculate the costs of pollution. That’s because contaminated water and toxic waste are not just bad for one’s health, they are also bad for one’s potential. It’s difficult to precisely quantify the opportunities lost to a life hampered by pollution. However, it’s easy to say that a young child drinking unsafe water and breathing polluted air will have a harder time growing up to become a leader in science, or discover a life-saving medicine. In this way, pollution not only robs the individual of their own fulfillment, it also robs the rest of us from the contributions that they could have made.
Knowing all of this, we must view environmental regulations and other forms of stewardship as crucial to a strong and just economy. Infrastructure must be vigorously funded as an investment that will help American citizens and their businesses. Furthermore, laws protecting the environment should also be seen as protecting our bottom line. A fully enforced Clean Water Act, as an example, won’t hurt businesses. On the contrary, these types of laws may very well end up fostering all sorts of new job creation, while also saving the taxpayer a lot of money.
A healthy economy and a healthy environment are not mutually exclusive. In fact, both will thrive when they work in concert. Our economy, and nearly every aspect of our lives, need clean water to thrive and blossom. We can continue to ignore this vital connection…. But it will cost us.
Article by Gloria Reuben, president of Waterkeeper Alliance, an organization that strengthens and grows a global network of grassroots leaders protecting everyone’s right to clean water.
Growing up in Toronto, Canada, Gloria Reuben distinctly remembers when it was forbidden to wade into Lake Ontario because of toxicity and high bacteria levels — it’s an experience a young child may not fully comprehend but can never forget. Now, decades later, she lives a few minutes from the mighty Atlantic Ocean and is filled with gratitude every time she visits its shores for its cleansing presence, primal rhythm, and healing power. Whether day or night, each visit to the water anchors Gloria in her commitment to do whatever she can to protect drinkable, swimmable, fishable waterways for generations to come.
As president of Waterkeeper Alliance, Gloria represents more than 350 Waterkeeper groups on six continents and amplifies our organizational vision for drinkable, fishable, swimmable water. The Waterkeeper movement’s clean water warriors are on the front lines of our global water crisis, fighting for the future of the planet, the world’s great water sources, and the communities surrounding them.
An actress and social activist, Reuben served as a Trustee with Waterkeeper Alliance from 2007 to 2010, before becoming an advisor to Vice President Al Gore’s environmental organization, The Climate Reality Project. Reuben previously served on the Advisory Council of the National Wildlife Federation and the Leadership Council for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In addition to her life’s work as an environmental champion, Reuben is an actress, singer, and published author whose credits in television include ER, Raising the Bar, Marvel TV’s Cloak & Dagger, City on a Hill, and Mr. Robot. She has also starred in films, including Lincoln, Admission, and Reasonable Doubt. In 2007, Gloria won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actress for her portrayal of Condoleezza Rice in David Hare’s play, Stuff Happens. Gloria’s first nonfiction book, My Brothers’ Keeper. Two Brothers. Loved. and Lost, was published in November 2019.
Note to Reader: This is GreenMoney’s third article from Waterkeeper Alliance, here is their 2020 article by Mary Beth Postman on The Future of Water.