Renewing America’s commitment to clean water

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Murky Supreme Court decisions in SWANCC (2001) and RAPANOS (2006) and conflicting agency guidance are eroding the Clean Water Act and putting millions of acres of wetlands and streams at risk. Tributaries and wetlands that provide clean water to iconic systems like the Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes and the Mississippi River Basin and Delta are in jeopardy. These waters supply at least some of the drinking water for 117 million Americans and provide important fish and wildlife habitats that fuel local economies and support outdoor traditions across the country. As these resources are polluted and diminished, so are the tremendous natural and public health benefits they provide, including food and flood protection.

New guidance from the Administration will clarify which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act and remove confusion for landowners, conservationists and state and local agencies. Providing a stronger, clearer definition of “Waters of the United States” through new guidance and rulemaking is a policy based on commonsense and common ground between conservation and industry interests.

The Corps and EPA took a positive first step this year by submitting draft guidance for public comment. Their proposal respects the Supreme Court’s rulings and related science. To protect America’s waters, in keeping with the Clean Water Act, this guidance must be finalized quickly. The agencies must initiate also a vigorous and transparent rulemaking process to clarify and reinforce the safeguards and scope of the Clean Water Act for landowners, developers, conservationists and state and federal agencies.

America needs to renew its commitment to clean water and a strong Clean Water Act so that we do not slide back into that time almost four decades ago when you could light a river on fire because of the pollution. Our waterways and wetlands should not be the dumping grounds for factory farm animal sewage, toxic mining waste and other health-threatening chemicals. Our nation’s investment in clean water began with a bi-partisan congressional commitment to ending the flagrant contamination of rivers, lakes and coastal waters. Republicans and Democrats alike recognized that to clean up our rivers, lakes, and bays, we had to stop pollution at its source – upstream in the multitude of headwaters, wetlands and small streams that store and filter water before releasing it downstream.

Since its birth, the Clean Water Act has guided the cleanup of America’s waters, making them safe once again for fishing, drinking and swimming. But serious challenges still remain. We cannot protect our drinking water or restore the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay or Florida’s clear springs and bays unless we commit to strengthen, not weaken, the Clean Water Act.

I am urging the Administration to restore and clarify the historical scope of the Clean Water Act by launching a public rulemaking and finalizing new guidance in early 2012 and safeguard the legacy established by Congress almost 40 years ago. Clean water sustains lives and livelihoods and habitat for fish and wildlife. Renewing America’s commitment to a strong and effective Clean Water Act also strengthens our country, our quality of life and our commitment to our children and grandchildren.

Jan Goldman-Carter is the Wetlands & Water Resources Counsel for the National Wildlife Federation