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Clean water is good for Maryland business [Commentary]

The new Waters of the U.S. rule is designed to clarify that the Clean Water Act protects a variety of important waters, including seasonal and rain-dependent streams, as well as wetlands near rivers and streams. Getting it implemented will depend on support from our members of Congress for the agencies' proposal. It'll affect a lot more than your favorite crab cakes — it could save your job.

Think clean water only counts when it comes out of your tap or when you dive in at the beach? No — it means so much more. Clean water is a front-burner business issue in Maryland and elsewhere.

Consider crabbers on the Chesapeake Bay. They know that pollution hurts their bottom line. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution threaten the crab population by fueling "dead zones" — portions of the Chesapeake Bay that are oxygen-deprived due to excess algae. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), those dead zones prevent the growth of 75,000 metric tons of clams and worms a year — enough to support half of the crab harvest. And this is only one example.

Outdoor recreation also obviously depends on clean water, and that is a major source of business in Maryland. For instance, in 2011, anglers spent more than $535 million to fish in Maryland. That's why many businesses in the state look forward to working with great champions of protecting the bay — like Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin — to support the "Waters of the U.S." rule, which the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have proposed under the Clean Water Act.

Passed in 1972, the Clean Water Act was designed to protect our waterways from harmful discharges, but a pair of Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 has made enforcement more difficult.

The new Waters of the U.S. rule is designed to clarify that the Clean Water Act protects a variety of important waters, including seasonal and rain-dependent streams, as well as wetlands near rivers and streams. About 60 percent of streams in the U.S. flow seasonally or following rainfall — and about 117 million Americans get drinking water from public systems that rely at least in part on them and small headwater streams.

The rule will give the business community an added dose of certainty — something they have been asking for ever since the Supreme Court ruled more than a decade ago. That's why 80 percent of small business owners said they would support such a rule, according to recent polling released by the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC).

Obviously businesses benefit when their employees and customers don't get sick from drinking contaminated water, which, as we saw after the Elk River spill in West Virginia is still possible in this day and age.

But the benefits to businesses go beyond that. Industries from fishing and agriculture to tourism and even technology rely on a consistent availability of clean water. Without it, they simply cannot operate. Ask any crabber whose catch will be limited this year, or the dozens of breweries now operating in Maryland.

That recent ASBC poll found that 71 percent of small business owners saw clean water regulations as crucial for economic growth, while only six percent said they were a hardship.

According to CBF, without the Clean Water Act in place, the bay watershed would have lost as much as $1.8 billion in benefits since 1996 because of decreased recreational activities — to say nothing of the increased health care costs, declining property values, damage to industries like commercial fishing and other factors.

That's what the rules would prevent. What these rules would not do is expand protections under the Clean Water Act to water bodies that weren't previously protected or cover waters that the science does not support protecting. All it would do is make clear what waterways the law can protect from industrial discharges, oil spills and outright destruction.

This is not a hypothetical problem. If we don't protect our waterways, our local economies will suffer. No business benefits from contaminated water, and for many industries, it's potentially devastating.

With so many spills in the news recently, from the Elk to the Dan River, this is something that really matters — because the last thing we need is something like that in the Chesapeake Bay.

EPA and the Army Corps have a very sensible plan that will help protect our state's economy. Getting it implemented will depend on support from our members of Congress for the agencies' proposal. It'll affect a lot more than your favorite crab cakes — it could save your job.

Stephen Schaff is the founding executive director of the Chesapeake Sustainable Business Council. http://www.csbcouncil.org. His email is steve@csbcouncil.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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