Streams and wetlands protection at issue in political battle
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — A long-running battle over Clean Water Act policies took another turn this week, as the U.S. House Appropriations Committee voted to block the Obama administration from implementing new policy guidance that would reinstate protections removed by the Bush administration.
The vote has implications for the Colorado high country, as the new guidelines would offer more protection for headwaters streams and wetlands that aren’t directly connected to navigable waterways.
Conservation groups said the oil and gas industry lobbied their GOP allies in Congress intensively to get the appropriations rider passed.
“They’ve never liked the Clean Water Act,” said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel with Earthjustice, a conservation and watchdog group that’s been tracking the rule.
At issue are which waters are covered by the protections of the Clean Water Act, based on several court decisions in recent years and subsequent interpretations of those rulings by different administrations.
The Bush administration issued a policy that limited the ability of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA to review impacts in smaller streams and disconnected wetlands.
Mulhern said the Obama administration finally came through on its promise to revise those rules; the House vote was timed to block those agencies from adopting the new policy.
“It is more protective of headwaters streams and wetlands. It directs the EPA and Corps to consider the cumulative effects of pollution in headwaters areas,” Mulhern said. “Under the Bush administration, the guidance was to look at each little stream segment in isolation.” Read the complete draft guidance here.
Industry and GOP propaganda has tried to present the new guidance as something that would affect irrigation ditches, backyard ponds and even birdbaths in a typical scare tactic used to stir opposition to government regulations, but none of those claims are true. Read a fact sheet on the Clean Water Act guidance here.
“Clean water is critical to healthy communities and public welfare,” Mulhern said. “Our waters are where our families swim, fish, and where we get our drinking water, and yet, polluters and their friends in Congress are trying to block the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency from protecting the nation’s streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands from harmful pollution.”
“The Committee members who voted for this amendment are siding with the oil industry, mining companies, developers, and others who would pollute our lakes, rivers, and drinking water sources,” said Ed Hopkins, Sierra Club’s Environmental Quality program director.
Opposition to the GOP move isn’t limited to conservation groups. Communities around the country realize that Bush-era rule puts their water at risk.
Most recently, the Los Angeles City Council symbolically voted to oppose federal legislation that would weaken Clean Water Act rules.
Los Angeles Councilmember Paul Koretz explained that, when it passed in 1972, the original vision of the Clean Water Act was to protect all of America’s waterways, and part of the intention was that by 1983 all of America’s waterways would be safe to fish and swim in, and by 1985 we would halt all industrial toxic dumping into waterways.
“As our once-annual snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas becomes less reliable – this winter is one of the driest on record – we all need to focus more on clean water protections.” Koretz said. “Clean drinking water is the most basic service our government can provide its constituents.”
Forty years later 57 percent of California’s streams and waterways are currently unprotected because of loopholes in the Clean Water Act.
Nationwide, waters now at risk under the Supreme Court decisions include streams that supply public drinking water systems serving more than 111 million Americans, a total of 5,646 public water supply systems.