Guest Editorial: Want jobs? Vote for candidates willing to pay for clean water

Want Jobs? Vote for Clean Water
With election day fast approaching, we are certain to hear more about “jobs,” “growing economic opportunity” and “building a stronger economy” from candidates for office at all levels. As we should. There is only one problem. How do we attract and retain employers, and with them jobs, if we do not invest in drinking water and wastewater treatment? Short answer: We don’t.
It is fundamentally impossible for Vermont to create and retain the jobs as virtually every single candidate running for office supposedly is pledging to do without the most basic of human needs: clean water. Yet, practically none of them even mention the current crisis facing Vermont communities — inadequate water and wastewater infrastructure. One major party candidate for governor makes no mention of it at all on his website. How do we address and correct a problem we don’t even acknowledge? Of course, we don’t.
Water is a special interest to all of us, Republicans, Democrats, Progressives and independents alike. Clean water is even needed for a tea party. We don’t, we can’t, live healthy lives without access to safe drinking water and recreational waters. It is also of special interest to the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, so much so that a major portion of its 2020 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy report was devoted to the issue.
Why then are the candidates seeking to represent us so silent and or blind to the need? The reason is that we, the people, don’t hold them to account. Or at least we have not in previous elections. This we can change. 
The Agency of Commerce states clearly in the 2020 report: “New building and economic growth will depend on adequate water and sewer capacity, which is limited in many areas.” Noting it is “limited in many areas” is an understatement. Such is the reality for 200 of the 251 communities in our state. If current attitudes prevail, many of these communities will be left behind because the state strategy has been to focus job growth in the remaining communities.
Is your community one of the fortunate ones or one slated to be abandoned? That is a question best answered by your city council or select board. Have they read the 2020 report? In listing “Challenges for the Vermont Economy,” the agency spells it out clearly: “Aging infrastructure, in particular wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, are making it increasingly difficult to build or expand,” noting later in the report, “Tackling these issues is not easy, but is critical to Vermont’s future.”
The agency concludes, “Inadequate, aging and failing wastewater and stormwater infrastructure is the principal barrier to reaching a host of state and local goals, from building more housing for all income levels, to revitalizing communities, to protecting the environment. For Vermont communities to thrive and grow, this issue must be addressed,” acknowledging, “Such limitations can lead to locating new business outside of villages and town centers, consuming more land, harming natural resources, and eroding the character and centrality of villages and town centers.”
Perhaps most honest but alarming are the agency’s observations in the area of drinking water challenges.
• Continuing and escalating maintenance costs make the long-term viability of drinking water supplies problematic.
• Small communities do not have a publicly supplied water system, and each resident and business relies on a private, often less reliable, water supply, the lack of which inhibits new residential or business activity.
The complications around drinking water are only further complicated by quality issues, the growing issue of nutrient pollution, and the associated cyanobacteria and its related neuro and liver toxin issues chief among them. University of Vermont researchers and others found cyanotoxins in the raw and finished drinking water samples of Lake Champlain water supplies. Little to nothing has been done to address this, despite urgings dating back to 2002. The Vermont Department of Health notes that 23 public drinking water supplies are contaminated with the agricultural pesticide, atrazine — a chemical banned years ago in the European Union.
In the latest report to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation notes 825 drinking water violations for contaminants as far ranging as radioactive isotopes to arsenic and coliform to nitrates. And there are thousands more for which we do not even test.
The spate of sewage dumps from antiquated and or inadequate municipal systems, 133 to date, and the associated public-health risk should be enough to focus the attention of would-be lawmakers and governors. If not that, then in a state where more than five percent of gross domestic product and nine percent of our general fund are attributable to tourism, the escalating beach closure crisis should be.
The Agency of Commerce summarizes it well: “Indeed, without addressing the many issues surrounding water quality, runoff and availability, construction and growth in Vermont will be limited and our natural resources — so key to our brand and the industries such as tourism which rely on clean water and lakes — will be negatively affected.”
Want jobs? Then the picture is as clear as clean water. We must elect candidates who have a plan for restoring and protecting swimmable, drinkable, fishable waters if we also desire a thriving economy. Any candidate who promises jobs without a plan to invest in a clean water economy is stuck in the mud, and depending on their district, quite literally so. If our elected officials remain mired in muddy waters, we will remain there with them, and we only have our own reflection in the blue-green scum to point at.
James Ehlers is executive director of Lake Champlain International and a director of Rights & Democracy.

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