California Businesses Need Stronger Federal Clean Water Rules


You don’t have to be a native Californian to know how important water is to our state, especially in light of the current record-breaking drought. The total cost of this drought is already running into the billions of dollars, and could end up costing us thousands of jobs.

Water is an economic necessity, and we need to protect it. That’s why a law like the Clean Water Act, designed to protect our waterways from harmful discharges, is so important – not just for agriculture, but also to industries like tourism, fishing, manufacturing and even technology. With water so scarce in California, and the state expected to grow to 50 million people by 2050, we need to make sure we’re protecting every drop.

Unfortunately, a pair of Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006, made Clean Water Act enforcement confusing. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed a new “Waters of the U.S.” rule to address this confusion. We need Senator Dianne Feinstein to join us in supporting that rule.

“Waters of the U.S.” makes clear that most seasonal and rain-dependent streams, as well as wetlands near rivers and streams, are and have always been protected waterways. About 60 percent of streams in the US flow seasonally or following rainfall, and about 117 million Americans – one in three of us – get drinking water from public systems that rely at least in part on these streams.

Contrary to what many opponents have claimed, these rules would not give the EPA any new authority under the Clean Water Act. No new types of waters would get protection, and – despite some particularly strange claims – irrigation ditches would not be covered. All the rules would do is more clearly define the waterways the EPA can protect.

They will also give the business community the certainty they have been asking for since the Supreme Court’s decisions a decade ago. This aligns with Senator Feinstein’s demonstrated support for California businesses and her efforts to address the drought-induced state of emergency declared by Governor Jerry Brown in January.

Small business owners are in favor of these protections. A national scientific poll recently released by the American Sustainable Business Council found that a whopping 80% of small business owners support the protections described by the proposed “Waters of the U.S.” rule. And that includes strong majorities of Republicans, as well as Democrats and Independents.

They understand that without clean water, many companies cannot operate. As water costs go up, supply chain materials either disappear or cost substantially more to obtain, and potential customers feel the pinch and spend less on goods and services, existing businesses suffer – and more of them shut down.

Big business isn’t different. One reason Silicon Valley soared as a technology manufacturing hub was its access to clean water from the Sierra Nevada. That growth has had a tremendous positive impact on our state’s economy, to the point where Silicon Valley accounts for 28 percent of our income tax base.

And smart water regulations can do wonders for economic development. In localities like Placer County, for example, regulators have been working to identify and plan for protection of water and other resources under a project called “Placer Legacy,” which speeds permitting processes and reduces carrying costs on investments.  It’s just smart business.

Then there’s the flip side. If we don’t protect our waterways, our local economies will suffer. The Elk River spill earlier this year cost $19 million a day. Our economy doesn’t need that kind of damage. No business benefits from contaminated water, and for many industries, it’s potentially devastating. We need to act now to protect them. That’s why we hope Senator Feinstein will help protect this precious resource by supporting this new EPA rule.


Steve Frisch is President of the Sierra Business Council, a non-profit network of more than 4,000 businesses, community organizations, local governments and individuals working to foster thriving communities in the Sierra Nevada.




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