Safe and Sufficient Water: A Presidential To-Do List

As many of my colleagues are describing today, NRDC and a host of partner groups in the environmental, conservation, and public health community have created a document, called "Transition to Green," which lays out a detailed set of policies that we hope President-Elect Obama will implement.  Along with a bunch of other water wonks, I worked on the sections of the document that focus on the Environmental Protection Agency's and Army Corps of Engineers' water portfolios.

Pulling together clean water policy recommendations for a new administration was a daunting experience.  Our ideas were too numerous, both because President Bush has presided over the most anti-environmental administration since the adoption of our landmark environmental laws in the 1970s, and because the Nation needs to implement many new initiatives to fulfill the original purpose of the Clean Water Act and to ensure safe and sufficient water for a variety of purposes.  There's much to fix, and much to create.

This is no "wish list" -- it is not nearly everything that could be done to repair the damage of the last eight years or everything that should be done to prepare for the years to come.  Rather, it represents a determined effort to identify a cohesive set of policies that the new administration should prioritize to demonstrate a real commitment to clean water. 

In particular, many of our recommendations reflected a single basic premise: natural aquatic systems should be preserved and enhanced because they are remarkably effective at preventing and mitigating water pollution and flooding, and because they provide important services like wildlife habitat and groundwater recharge.  Natural solutions also have an obvious cost advantage - if the ecosystem will clean and store our water for free, we can reduce our need to rely on engineered distribution and treatment systems.  So, our document encourages an integrated set of policies:

The administration must first guard against the further loss of headwater streams, wetlands and other waters that comprise and are an integral part of our aquatic systems. It is also necessary to enhance the use of green infrastructure - such as infiltrating stormwater through vegetation and soil to reduce both the pollution carried by runoff and sewer overflows in many urban areas. Additionally, the administration must work to restore natural aquatic ecosystems, like our coastal and other wetland systems, that protect people, wildlife and our economic interests.

In keeping with these principles, we urge both EPA and the Corps to work to restore Clean Water Act protections to a variety of water bodies by pushing for legislation to clarify the law in the wake of a pair of messy Supreme Court decisions and unhelpful Bush administration "guidance," a critical problem I have addressed in prior posts.  We also recommend that the agencies undo their destructive 2002 rule change that authorized the disposal of certain kinds of waste - such as the waste generated by the surreal practice of mountaintop removal coal mining - in water bodies.  And we identify a number of opportunities that EPA has to integrate green infrastructure into its Clean Water Act programs and plead that the new administration will insist that the Corps makes avoiding - not authorizing -- harm to water bodies its primary clean water mission. 

While there are many additional important recommendations, each of which I encourage you to read and hope the President-Elect's transition team will take to heart, we're going to be a lot better off if the new administration recognizes the values Mother Nature provides free of charge, and makes maximizing natural systems the central promise of its clean water policy.