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Can water have economic integrity? A team of students from Pace University’s Lubin School of Business believe so and have called for an amendment to the Federal Clean Water Act that would add the term “economic” to the law’s primary objective “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

Alexandra Dunn, in the role of Chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, questions students from Pace University’s Lubin School of Business; to her left, Judge Glen Bruening. The four Lubin students are flanked by their counsels from Pace Law School. L to R: John Bowie, Gregory Costello, Brian Porter, Cody Pannella, Anthony Vitale, Thomas Canova.

They presented the controversial recommendation in prepared testimony before a blue-ribbon panel of environmental law experts and former government officials who were assuming the role of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Theirs was one of six teams that appeared at the mock senate hearing on the Clean Water Act held April 26 on the Pace Pleasantville campus. More details on the day’s agenda and participants here.

The Lubin team also asked for incentives that will spur technological innovation and rewards for industries that voluntarily perform beyond the requirements of the law. “We live and conduct business in a water economy,” testified Brian Porter, who opened the presentation. “Every aspect of our economic health and productivity requires water.”

Members of the committee pushed back. In her day-long role as U.S. Senator from Connecticut, Leslie Carothers, former commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and a scholar-in-residence at Pace Law School, called the economic integrity amendment “an odd fit” and questioned whether it might even conflict with the purposes of the law. There was also lively back and forth about the meaning of the word “integrity.” The original Senate authors of the 1972 law wrestled with the same conundrum. “Health” and “values” are close synonyms.

At work in IBM’s computer chip fabrication plant in East Fishkill, NY. Chip fab requires ultra-clean conditions, which also means high quality water.

This is a timely debate. There is a reversal of fortunes occurring throughout the United States and the world as many companies transition from perceived purveyors of dirty water to exacting consumers of clean water.

IBM Demands fewer Chemicals in Water  topped the front page of the Poughkeepsie Journal on April 10, 2013. The company says its water supply, which originates in New York’s Hudson River and is treated and delivered by the City of Poughkeepsie, contains too many contaminants for efficient operation of its computer chip fabrication plant in East Fishkill, NY.

It was a sobering revelation that followed on the heels of a nagging article last year that speculated IBM might sell the facility, which employs much of the company’s 7,900 member Dutchess County workforce. Now there is whispered worry that poor water quality might prompt the longtime regional employer to put the factory on the block. Worth noting is IBM’s ever mounting investment in India where, according to many observers, its workers now outnumber those in the United States.

The Lubin students may be onto something. The IBM story, almost unthinkable a decade ago, underscores the different world in which water flows in the 21st century. In an April 11, 2011 Fast Company article, Why GE, Coca-Cola and IBM Are Getting into the Water Business, Charles Fishman wrote, “The companies that are taking water seriously today have something at risk — their inability to function without reliable water.”  IBM made the point simply in its 2008 Global Innovation Outlook Report on water: “Some amount of water is required to produce nearly everything humans consume.”

In 1972, it became apparent to Congress that protection of the health of the American environment, citizens and society itself, required a federal law to end pollution and guarantee clean water. Perhaps it is time for a national discussion about the role of clean water in the health of the nation’s economy as well.