Bad Bill Will Mean More Pesticides in Our Water

When I was growing up, we had a creek (pronounced “crick” where I’m from) running through our backyard that my little sister and I would play in all spring and summer long. We would be soaked head to toe by the end of the day from running through the water, looking for tadpoles and chasing butterflies.  

It’s a great memory, and I hope someday my son will have similarly fond memories of playing in the stream that runs through my parents’ neighborhood.  But if the chemical industry special interests have their way, we all need to be careful about letting our kids play in the local waterbodies, or about fishing in a nearby river, or swimming in a lake.  

Right now, a bill - HR 872[1] - is quickly making its way through the House of Representatives that puts all the rivers, streams, lakes and other water bodies in the U.S. at risk of pesticide contamination.  This bill seeks to exempt the spraying of pesticides into or near a waterbody from the Clean Water Act.  This is madness.[2]

Supporters of this bill want to rely solely on the federal pesticide law -- called FIFRA[3] for short (“fif-rah”) -- to protect our waters from these toxic chemicals.  Under FIFRA, the Environmental Protection Agency registers pesticides that can be sold and used in the U.S. if the Agency finds that its use “will not generally cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment.”  

But FIFRA does not protect our waters from pesticide contamination.

How do we know? There are over 1,000 waterbodies in the U.S. known to be impaired by pesticide contamination - and many more are likely polluted but are not tested. The US Geological Survey has found pesticides in every stream sampled in a nationwide survey. Pesticide contamination is rampant: from California to Kansas to Illinois to New Jersey - almost every state across the country has pesticide-contaminated waters.

This is no theoretical concern. Examples of pesticides destroying more than the target pest abound. An irrigation district’s spraying of a pesticide into their irrigation canal ended up contaminating a nearby stream and killing 92,000 juvenile steelhead trout. These chemicals are designed specifically to kill things, and it should come as no surprise that once they enter the water, they wreak havoc on the health of aquatic plants and animals, and they work their way up our food chain and into our drinking water supplies.   

When Congress first passed the Clean Water Act almost 40 years ago, its aim was to restore the most polluted waters or protect pristine waters from contamination. One program - called NPDES[4] (“nip-deez”) permits - allowed the Agency to set limits on the amount and type of pollution that can be dumped into a waterbody by taking into consideration things like how the waterbody is used (for fishing or swimming) and whether significant fish species rely on the waters.  None of these things is considered by FIFRA.  (For curious readers, check out our factsheet for a side-by-side comparison of the differences between FIFRA and the Clean Water Act).  

At its core, FIFRA is about getting pesticides to market.  The Clean Water Act is about minimizing pollution. We need the Clean Water Act to protect us from FIFRA-registered pesticides.

But those special interest groups have convinced many representatives on both sides of the aisle that it's not necessary, that FIFRA alone can protect us.  They have marched in farmers and ranchers bemoaning the burden that this permit would have on them, on agriculture, and on our economy.  But they forget to mention that this permit does not apply to the vast majority of ranchers and farmers. (The only farmers this would apply to would be those whose crops actually grow in a waterbody.)  

In a few days, on Wednesday, March 30, the House will be voting on this terrible bill. Before they do, your representative needs to hear that you want to be able to use your local lakes and rivers without worrying about being poisoned by pesticides.  If you fish, or swim, or paddle or just want clean water, join our friends - like San Francisco Baykeeper - to stop this disastrous bill.   


[1] The so-called “Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2011” which should, more appropriately, be called the “Contaminating Our Water With Pesticides Act.”

[2] Even though we’re in the midst of March Madness, that’s no excuse.

[3] Full name, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act.

[4] Full name, the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System.

About the Authors

Mae Wu

Senior Attorney, Health program

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