Michigan businesses don’t have to choose between safe water and bottom line

Bridge water summit panel

Bridge reporter Allie Schmidt leads a discussion with environmental and business advocates at a Center for Michigan Water Summit in Lansing. From left: Rich Bowman of the Nature Conservancy, Laura Campbell of the Michigan Farm Bureau, Steve Japinga of the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce and Conan Smith of the Michigan Environmental Council. (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)

LANSING — From the Line 5 oil pipeline to PFAS, it may seem like the best interests of business powerhouses can — wittingly or not — frequently conflict with the best interests of Michigan’s freshwater resources. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to a panel of experts who spoke Thursday at a Water Summit sponsored by the Center for Michigan and Bridge Magazine. Science-based solutions, public-private partnerships and state investment in environmental business solutions can help the state’s economic leaders invest in practices that conserve and protect water. 

“The idea that environmental health or clean water and a healthy economy are mutually exclusive is one of those stories we tell ourselves,” said Rich Bowman, director of government relations for the Michigan branch of the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit.

The discussion focused on balancing water quality and economic growth in the state. Held at Lansing Community College, eight experts representing business and environmental groups discussed conservation issues and took questions from Bridge readers. It’s the first of two such summits the Center for Michigan is holding this fall as Michigan policymakers seek solutions for water problems related to PFAS, algae blooms, lead pipes in water systems and more. The second summit, in Grand Rapids, is set for Oct. 24.

There are a number of Michigan programs that help the private sector reduce carbon emissions and water, electricity and land use, and decrease nutrient loads in freshwater, Bowman said. One example is the Great Lakes Impact Investment Platform, which connects investors with businesses pioneering sustainable business strategies. 

“The first step to actually making this happen is by thinking about it deliberately and then making investment in choices that make that a reality,” he said. 

For industries to buy into those investments, though, they must be supported by sound scientific evidence, said Laura Campbell, agriculture ecology manager for the Michigan Farm Bureau, which represents the state’s agriculture industry. 

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other Great Lakes-area governors have proposed reducing the amount of phosphorus runoff — which farmers use to fertilize crops and which are a contributor to algae blooms that hurt marine life and mar the state’s scenic waterfronts — by 40 percent by 2025. 

Critics have voiced concerns that increased regulation could further hurt farmers, who have had a tough economic year due to restricted farmland use and international trade conflicts. 

Nevertheless, Campbell said, farmers are interested in developing strategies to reduce the industry’s negative effects on the environment with financial support from the state to help offset additional costs that come with conservation practices. Since 2008, farmers have lowered phosphorus discharges by 26 percent. 

Local businesses can also work to improve water quality in the communities where they’re based to the benefit of their bottom line and their city, said Steve Japinga, vice president of government relations for the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce. 

Michigan’s economy has mostly bounced back from the Great Recession and employers are struggling to find skilled workers to fill tens of thousands of jobs. Great water quality is one of the big factors that make communities more livable and therefore more attractive to in-demand workers, Japinga said. That’s why businesses in Lansing have partnered with the city to help sponsor cleanup projects in the Grand River and Red Cedar. 

“Our business community, they’re continuing to step up and we’re seeing that this has become a really important issue to them,” Japinga said. 

Conan Smith, president of the Michigan Environmental Council, said environmental conservation can create jobs on its own: Advanced research and development of environmental systems that can better manage water resources provide good jobs that can help bolster local economies. 

“Michigan has no greater responsibility to the world that protection of its fresh water,” Smith said.

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