Why the Wait to Protect Clean Water?

The New York Times editorial page just asked the Obama Administration “Where Are the Clean Water Rules”?  Kudos to the Gray Lady for calling attention to the critical need for improved national clean water policies, as my colleague Jon Devine has noted again and again.

You might ask what the fuss is about. The Obama Administration has drafted – but not released -- a new set of guidelines that use scientific evidence of the importance of small streams and wetlands to better protect them from unregulated pollution.  The guidelines clarify which water bodies are covered by the 1972 Clean Water Act, after two Supreme Court decisions (in 2001 and 2006) and guidance from the previous Administration cast uncertainty on the intent of the original legislation, imperiling protection for millions of miles of streams, millions of acres of wetlands, and other waters. 

As a result, EPA often finds itself in a sort of legal limbo, which has forced the agency to walk away from hundreds of enforcement actions related to suspected violations of the Clean Water Act with respect to certain kinds of waterbodies.  Instead, law enforcement officials have focused on pollution into large, unquestionably covered, waters.  It's as though a police officer stopped patrolling the side streets on his beat and only watched out for crimes on major roads. 

And that’s a problem, especially if you’re one of the 117 million Americans who draw their drinking water from the very waterbodies – intermittent, ephermeral and headwater streams – whose protection has been in limbo for more than decade.  Millions of other Americans use these waters to fish and swim. 

The Administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to make the process of generating the guidelines transparent – the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers released a draft of the guidance last year for public input.  The agencies received about 230,000 comments (the vast majority of which were supportive). The EPA website explains why the guidance is needed, as well as why it will not affect farmers, even though the industry opponents of clean water protections have tried to scare farmers into thinking this action will create new, disruptive requirements. Congressional opponents of clean water are using this transparency against the Administration.  We’re seeing rider after rider introduced to prevent the EPA or the Corps from issuing the guidance.

I recently blogged about how some farmers, fishermen and  local elected officials took to the radio waves to urge the Administration to release the Clean Water Act guidance.  Like the New York Times, they think action is overdue.

Now is the time for all of us to let President know that he has our support and that clean water depends on his administration acting, rather than delaying these guidelines to appease industry opponents of pollution safeguards. 

About the Authors

Karen Hobbs

Senior Policy Analyst, Water program

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