Murky future for Clean Water Act restoration
Now that health insurance reform has passed Congress, is it finally time to restore the health of America’s waters?
I know what you’re thinking — the Clean Water Act already protects the nation’s waters, right? That we learned our lesson and cleaned up our water act after the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969?
Wrong. America’s waters are vulnerable once again, thanks to Supreme Court decisions in 2001 & 2006. Those rulings muddied the waters and called into question long-standing Clean Water Act protections. We’re already seeing the results as wetland losses mount — over and above the 80,000 acres of our nation’s wetlands already disappearing annually. And more than one in three Americans receive drinking water from vulnerable wetlands & streams.
The National Wildlife Federation has joined with Ducks Unlimited & Trout Unlimited to release a series of reports to drive the point home:
- In Tennessee (PDF), up to 60 percent of stream miles and half of the state’s 787,000 remaining acres of wetlands may no longer be protected under the Clean Water Act.
- The same confusion threatens streams & wetlands in Colorado (PDF), which provide habitat and benefits to more than 75 percent of the state’s wildlife and waterfowl. It also jeopardizes the multi-billion dollar hunting and fishing industries.
- Montana (PDF) is home to a section of the Prairie Pothole region—an area riddled with small wetland depressions that may not look like much in isolation, but when considered in whole, are of continental importance as critical breeding habitat for North American waterfowl. These potholes also store enormous quantities of water and hold back potentially damaging flood waters.
- In South Carolina (PDF), coastal freshwater wetlands areas will be increasingly important as we adapt to climate change — but they’ve lost protections. According to Professor Kim Diana Connolly, author of the South Carolina report, “The confusion and lack of clarity over what is and what is not covered by the Clean Water Act threatens to undermine years of conservation efforts.”
Even if your state’s waters aren’t specifically detailed here, you can be sure they’re accumulating pollutants and, in some cases, disappearing.
It’s not just conservation organizations that are clamoring. The New York Times published a front page article this month documenting the confusion over Clean Water Act jurisdiction. The article emphasizes the gigantic leap backward water protection has taken in the last 10 years. According to one EPA attorney, “When companies figure out the cops can’t operate, they start remembering how much cheaper it is to dump stuff in a nearby creek.”
Last June, the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee passed legislation that would restore the original intent of the Clean Water Act. But there’s been precious little action since then as the bill remains bottled up in the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.
In the meantime, America’s waters remain vulnerable. Will Congress deliver universal health care for America’s waterways?
Get Grist in your inbox