Thursday, October 18, 2007

As Clean Water Act turns 35, Congress can reaffirm original intent

As Clean Water Act turns 35, Congress can reaffirm original intent

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Today the Clean Water Act, often heralded as one of the most effective sets of environmental laws ever enacted, turns 35. I’d like to report that in the 35 years since passage of the Act, all of the waters of the United States have become fishable and swimmable. I say I’d like to report that, but I can’t.

Today more than 45% of rivers and lakes in the U.S. remain too polluted for people to safely fish in them, swim in them or take their drinking water from them.

I suspect many people are actually comfortable with this state of affairs because they can remember when things were even worse. Point source pollution—ugly stuff running out of pipes—has been greatly reduced, thanks to the permitting system instituted by the Clean Water Act. And we haven’t witnessed anything as dramatic as the Cuyahoga River burning in recent years.

But the Clean Water Act doesn’t prompt us to ask whether we can see pollution flowing out of pipes, or whether our waters are so degraded they’ll catch fire. It prompts us to ask, “Can I fish there?” and “Can I swim there?”

Further progress toward the ultimate goals of the Clean Water Act is possible, but it won’t be easy.

In part, that’s because progress toward cleaner water will require that we come together to reduce nonpoint source pollution. That includes the nutrients and pesticides that run off of farm fields, lawns and golf courses, as well as the oil, antifreeze, and other contaminants picked up by rainwater as it flows over pavement.

Progress toward cleaner water has also been hampered in Washington in recent years. Rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and subsequent administrative activities by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers have served to exclude certain wetlands and smaller, sometimes intermittent, streams from the protections afforded by the Clean Water Act.

If you measure the streams of Illinois in miles, more than half of them are small enough to now be at risk of losing Clean Water Act protections. Also vulnerable are some 150,000 acres of Illinois wetlands, which could now be considered “isolated” and thereby outside of Clean Water Act safeguards.

I don’t claim expertise in the legal arguments at play here, but I do understand that big rivers result from lots of smaller streams coming together, and that you can’t expect to have clean water in the Mississippi unless you also have clean water in the Illinois, and the Wabash, and the Ohio, and the thousands of smaller waterways from which these rivers arise.

Thirty-five years after passage of the original Clean Water Act, Congress has returned to this crucial issue. A bill introduced this summer called the “Clean Water Restoration Act” (HR 2421) would, according to supporters, reaffirm the original intent of the 1972 law, which was to protect all “waters of the United States.” Their hope, which I share, is that the Clean Water Restoration Act will make it possible to move forward again to turn the promise of clean water into a reality.