Your Job or Your Water: Watersheds amid the “Economy Vs. Environment” Conflict

Lake Tear in the Clouds, Hudson River headwaters

The need for improved water resource protection is urgent, yet land-use activities increasingly imperil our water supplies. With that in mind, we’re excited to present the final installment of a three-part blog series, “Watershed Paths to Water Protection,” on citizen stewardship of water resources by Karen Schneller-McDonald, author of Connecting the Drops: A Citizens’ Guide to Protecting Water Resources.

We’ve all heard the message: Natural resource protection (including regulations) raises taxes, costs jobs, and discourages economic growth. Environmental degradation may be the price you have to pay to retain your job and standard of living.

In this series, we’ve had a look at watershed science, community partnerships, and watershed groups and their goals: clean drinking water, reduced flooding, healthy ecosystems. A major obstacle to achieving these goals, no matter where we live, is the “environment vs. economy” argument framed as a zero-sum choice.

This choice is nonsense—as we quickly realize after asking a few pointed questions about the true costs of development, sustainable growth, and human and ecological health. Quick Google searches for this blog revealed significantly more information about the economic benefits of protecting water resources than about the economic downside (loss of businesses and jobs, economic hardship for agriculture).

We pay an economic price for failing to understand the consequences of environmental degradation in terms of the costs to human health, cleanup of contaminated sites, increased flooding, reduced property values, and more.

And yet this message can be a significant road block to water protection. Its proponents have loud voices, as they try to scare us into thinking we risk our livelihood if we try to protect our water. In fact, our economic well-being depends on a healthy environment, which includes an abundant supply of clean water.

Pond with healthy buffer, New Paltz, NY. Note the turtles lined up on the log.

Without a healthy environment, we can’t sustain healthy communities
Our lives affect our environment. We change natural communities whenever we build roads and houses, dump trash, dispose of wastewater, grow crops, or fertilize lawns. Over time these activities can change natural systems, including watersheds, to the point where they can no longer provide the services we depend on—like clean water to drink.

We pay an economic price for failing to understand the consequences of environmental degradation in terms of the costs to human health, cleanup of contaminated sites, replacement of ruined drinking water sources, lost opportunities for recreation and tourism, increased flooding, reduced property values, and compromised food safety.

Is “hindering development” the same as requiring a developer to change project design to prevent local water contamination?

Watershed groups can make a difference
Watersheds illustrate a “big picture” of water impacts, including land use and downstream effects. Watershed groups can help defuse the environment vs. economy conflict by:

  1. Supporting local, state, and federal regulations that are essential for protection of our water, land, and air. We cannot achieve clean water without strong environmental protection laws, local land use protections, and legislation like the Clean Water Act.
  2. Helping people come together to protect the values they share—like clean water—despite differences that arise because of personal values, opinions, politics, and faulty or incomplete information.
  3. Providing credible information and helping people make the connections between clean water, land use practices, and a healthy community. Concern about jobs and the local economy touches everyone. False statements based on insufficient information can block protection if they’re not challenged. Is “hindering development” the same as requiring a developer to change project design to prevent local water contamination? If you can provide informed answers to similar questions, you have a better chance of influencing the local conversation.
  4. Drawing attention to true costs. Local officials may embrace the benefits of development projects without evaluating their true costs. Watershed groups can help them consider:
    • The relationship between tax benefit and cost of increased services: for every tax dollar generated, development projects often require more than a dollar’s worth of services from the community
    • Water contamination from pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers
    • Downstream effects (e.g., contaminant migration, flooding)
    • Human health care costs from contaminated water
    • Loss (and replacement) of ecosystem services (e.g., wetlands)
    • Effect of water withdrawals
    • Replacement or treatment of contaminated drinking water
    • Effects from increased runoff (e.g., septic and other waste discharges) collectively and over time
    • Cost of cleanup of spills, accidents, etc.
    • Decreased property values
    • Loss of recreation, tourism, educational opportunities
    • Cost of cumulative impacts
  5. Educating communities about the cost of not protecting natural systems and their benefits. Watersheds provide natural flood protection via floodplains, buffers, and wetlands. Preserving natural features that prevent flooding and improve water quality is less expensive than remediation or elaborate infrastructure. Floodplains without buildings can better absorb flood flows. Networks of small wetlands collectively increase watershed storage capacity, and can reduce peak flows and subsequent damage to downstream properties during floods. Vegetated buffers along the water’s edge intercept contaminants carried by storm-water runoff. Studies that present dollar values for some of these resources can used to document these costs.
Schoharie River valley

Water: human right or commodity?
Is clean drinking water a human right or a commodity? Are wetlands and streams assets, or constraints to development?

We need to be clear about our values and the cost involved in these choices. If we waver, others will make the decision for us, most likely in favor of water as a commodity and wetlands as a constraint. For example:

  • In 2011, Flint, Michigan was declared to be in a financial state of emergency. The state took budgetary control, appointing an emergency financial manager to cut the budget, at any cost. This led to a change in drinking water source and subsequent widespread lead contamination, a ruined drinking water supply, and enormous human health costs.
  • The Clean Water Act defines waters of the U.S. that fall under federal regulatory protection. Current proposed changes to this definition put many wetlands and streams at risk despite their role in watershed health, in addition to flood and water quality protection. Those who want to weaken or eliminate basic water resource protections fail to understand watersheds and how they work, the economic consequences of pollution, and the value of watershed services (including dollar value) to our health and economic well-being.
  • In 2014, Niagara bottling company approached Kingston, NY, (as it has approached other communities) with a controversial plan to buy up to 1.75 million gallons of water per day from the city and sell it at retail outlets. After a battle, its offer was rejected by the community.

Facts and values
We need the facts to inform our efforts to protect watersheds. We also need to be aware of the values we bring to water protection.

Our values motivate us. It’s important that drinking water is clean, lakes are safe for swimming, rivers produce fish we can eat without fear of contamination, and watersheds are healthy enough to provide aquifer recharge and flood protection.

We have the grassroots energy, the science, and the opportunity to develop partnerships to protect the watershed features we value. One example: this fall, the Hudson River Watershed Alliance announced Bard College as one of the recipients of the 2017 Watershed WaveMaker Awards. These are  given to an individual, community group, small business, or institution who is working to protect, conserve and restore the Hudson River and other water resources in the region.

We’ll need persistence as we evaluate the facts and discuss our shared interests—despite economic development pressure to discount them. Human health, economic health, environmental health: Our success in watershed protection will reflect these priorities and values. Jobs or clean water? No choice: We need both.

The Economic Benefits of Protecting Healthy Watersheds

Economic Valuation of Watershed Systems

The Value of Watersheds

Economic Benefits of Watershed Restoration

Karen Schneller-McDonald is the author of Connecting the Drops: A Citizens’ Guide to Protecting Water Resources. A wetland and water resources specialist, she is the president of Hickory Creek Consulting LLC.

watercover.png Learn more:
Connecting the Drops
A Citizens’ Guide to Protecting Water Resources
Karen Schneller-McDonald
$24.95 paperback | Comstock Publishing Associates

Your Job or Your Water: Watersheds amid the “Economy Vs. Environment” Conflict