Local officials across Virginia are discussing the pollution reductions proposed by the EPA to restore clean water to the state's rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. A theme reflected in some news articles is blaming the EPA for imposing unreasonable and unfunded mandates upon Virginians.
Let's be clear. While the EPA has proposed a pollution diet for the Bay - scientifically establishing the amount of pollution that Virginia must reduce by 2025 to return its rivers and the Bay to a clean, safe condition - the responsibility for clean water in Virginia lies with the commonwealth. The Virginia Constitution (Article XI) and State Water Control Law have for decades required that the commonwealth ensure clean water for its citizens.
While it is a requirement of the federal Clean Water Act, hence the EPA's involvement in Bay restoration, cleaning up dirty rivers and the Bay is not only a federal mandate; it's also a Virginia one.
Nor is the EPA to blame for Virginia's dirty water - 12,000 miles of polluted rivers; beaches unsafe for swimming; dead zones that kill crabs and oysters; and rivers in some areas that are no cleaner than an unflushed toilet. Virginians own that pollution, and it behooves state leaders, local officials, homeowners, farmers and businesses to work together to clean up their own mess.
It won't be easy, and it won't be free. It doesn't have to be done by tomorrow or next year; the state has 15 years to get it right. But surely Virginians possess the ingenuity, savvy and resolve to provide safe, clean water for themselves, their children and their children's children.
Another fundamental point often missed in recent discussions about the Bay cleanup: Dirty water kills fish and jobs; clean water grows the economy and creates jobs. Consider the massive economic losses in the Gulf of Mexico caused by oil pollution last summer. In Virginia, the Bay's ongoing pollution continues to eliminate thousands of jobs in the seafood and tourism industries and to increase the cost of clean drinking water and wastewater treatment.
The flip side: Spending to clean up streams, rivers and the Bay stimulates the economy. A University of Virginia study earlier this year found that every dollar that the government spends on farm clean water practices creates $1.56 in new economic activity, and if implemented widely, such practices generate thousands of new jobs. Healthy rivers and clean beaches draw lots of visitors and tourism dollars; no-swimming and no-fishing signs do not.
Some people are concerned about the cost of cleaning the rivers and the Bay and, in some cases, have conflated spending on current or already planned projects with those needed for the Bay's cleanup, perhaps intentionally exaggerating the expense.
Regardless, Congress has acknowledged cost concerns and is now considering the Chesapeake Clean Water Act, which would authorize more than $2 billion to help localities and farmers reduce their pollution to meet clean water standards. Yet the very groups complaining the loudest about feared costs - local governments and farmers - steadfastly oppose the legislation. They can't have it both ways.
Complaining and saying no isn't good enough. An overwhelming majority of Virginians of every political, cultural and geographic stripe want clean rivers and a healthy Chesapeake Bay. They also want Virginia's leaders to stop delaying and get on with the business of providing clean water. It's time to do just that.