A Victory for Clean Water

Clean water and the Clean Water Act won big today. That's because EPA and the Corps of Engineers finalized the Clean Water Rule, which will better protect a variety of streams, ponds and wetlands, including streams that 1 in 3 Americans - more than 117 million people - rely on for their drinking water.

NRDC and our partners fought for these safeguards for more than a decade, after a Supreme Court decision in 2001, followed by a second decision in 2006 and agency policies implemented under the Bush administration made it more difficult for federal and state agencies to protect our waterways.

What's been at issue is whether and how to update current rules to better protect small and non-perennial streams and brooks as well as critical wetlands and other streams, rivers and lakes. These waters not only supply drinking water, but they are habitat for fish and fowl, help protect our communities from flooding and perform other important ecological and economic functions.

With today's action by EPA and the Army Corps, nearly 2 million miles of the stream miles outside of Alaska -- about 60 percent - will be better protected, as will nearby waters that help feed, and are fed by, streams. Also, 20 percent of the 110 million acres of wetlands in the continental United States are considered geographically isolated; many of these wetlands will also enjoy greater protections.

These are big numbers and it's taken a big and strong coalition to help make today's announcement a reality. EPA and the Corps received more than 1 million public comments, with more than 87 percent in support of the rule. Sportsmen, religious leaders, public health professionals, small business owners, local officials, state attorneys general, craft brewers, farmers and environmentalists might support the Clean Water Rule for different reasons, but the importance of clean water is something we all agree on.

Our coalition also pushed the agencies to base the rule on science. EPA reviewed more than 1,200 peer-reviewed scientific publications to identify how different waterbodies are connected physically, chemically and/or biologically. They convened an independent Science Advisory Board (SAB), composed of 26 scientists representing a range of disciplines, to review their findings and issue their own report. The SAB overwhelmingly supported EPA's recommendation to clearly protect tributary streams and waters adjacent to these streams because the science confirms they have a significant effect on the biological, chemical, or physical condition of downstream water bodies that are navigable or that are interstate.

Both agencies have been transparent and responsive in the development of the Clean Water Rule. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy committed to carefully reviewing public comments and concerns. The agencies held or participated in more than 400 meetings with stakeholders across the country, including numerous agricultural producers and industry representatives. Administrator McCarthy assured her critics and supporters alike that their comments will be reflected in the final rule. And they are. We are still completing our analysis of how the agencies responded to public comments, but it's clear that the agencies adopted brighter lines and even clearer definitions than the proposal contained. Moreover, they've shrunk the universe of automatically-included waters. Candidly, this is an area in which the rule is not as protective as the proposal. We're disappointed with this change, but understand the need to provide clear rules for the regulated community, citizens and pollution control officials. And, even with these changes, the rule significantly strengthens protections for at-risk waters. The agencies also kept their promise that nothing in the Clean Water Rule changes the exemptions and exclusions for agricultural producers that have been in place since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972.

Yes, clean water won big today, but so did everyone who enjoys a glass of cold water on a hot day, who drops a line into a favorite fishing hole or looks forward to swimming in a nearby stream or lake. No matter what your favorite body of water (mine is above), today is a day to celebrate!

About the Authors

Karen Hobbs

Senior Policy Analyst, Water program

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