OP-ED: Countering misinformation about Clean Water Act
The Environmental Protection Agency has nearly completed its rule to restore Clean Water Act protections to most of the nation's waters. The EPA's rule does only one thing: It restores protection to thousands of miles of headwater streams and over 20 million acres of the nation's wetlands that was taken away in 2003 by an administration unfriendly to clean water standards.
Prior to the Clean Water Act passage in 1972, pollution discharges were either largely unregulated, or regulated at the point the pollution discharged into a large river or lake. Back then, TIME magazine proclaimed Ohio's Cuyahoga River, the one that caught on fire, to be among the most polluted in the country. Their editorial lamented "Some river! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. 'Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,' Cleveland's citizens joke grimly. 'He decays.'"
But the Cuyahoga River was only the poster child for polluted water. Most of the nation's rivers were so fouled they were not safe for fish or humans. Fueled by public outrage, 96 Republicans joined 151 Democrats to override President Nixon's veto to pass the Clean Water Act. The CWA protected the nation's wetlands and streams all the way to the headwaters because Congress knew that most pollution did not come from the end of a discharge pipe; it came from the upper headwaters.
So for the next 31 years, the nation began the long process of restoring the chemical, physical and biological integrity of our lakes and rivers. The CWA regulations prove that protecting water quality can go hand in hand with economic prosperity. Since its passage in 1972, our Gross Domestic Product has doubled. Clearly, we have all benefited from having clean water.
Despite the CWA's clear societal and economic benefits, the Bush administration's 2003 changes to the regulations eliminated federal protection for head water streams and so-called isolated wetlands, as if a wetland can ever be isolated from the aquatic ecosystem. The EPA estimated that the rule change eliminated protection for over 46,000 miles of Pennsylvania's headwater streams and over half of its vegetated wetlands.
The EPA's new rule is designed to do only one thing; It proposes to simply to restore protection to all waters, similar to how the nation's streams and wetlands were regulated before the Bush administration weakened the regulations.
Here in Pennsylvania, over 46,000 miles of headwater streams will once again be federally protected. These small headwater streams are where over 30 percent of Pennsylvanians get their drinking water and are the foundation of our fine trout streams, providing huge economic benefits for industry, recreation and wildlife.
The Farm Bureau has been trying to scare farmers by claiming the EPA's new regulations would regulate dry land. That's just nonsense. the EPA's rule is clear: If you have been farming an area as part of an established operation this rule does not apply to you. There is no permit required for farming dry land — and there never has been. Contrary to the Farm Bureau's misinformation campaign, the EPA's rule does not expand federal jurisdiction. In fact, it protects fewer wetlands than the original CWA.
To be clear, the EPA's rule does not regulate land use activity around small streams and creeks; does not regulate ditches that carry water only when it rains; does not regulate the application of fertilizer to farm fields; does not require a permit for farming activities in areas that are now, and have been farmed; and does not require a permit for new farms. The rule clearly states that normal farming and ranching activities are exempt, and then list activities that are considered normal so that there is no mistake. I don't know how the EPA can make it any clearer.
Our country is incredibly fortunate that back in 1972 our elected representatives recognized that our economy, our very way of life, is inextricably tied to clean water. The same river that once caught on fire now supports an annual run of salmon.
Despite the benefits to our economy, our wildlife and our drinking water, every Pennsylvania Republican representative voted with almost all their Republican colleagues to oppose the EPA's rule. How has it come to pass that something that was recognized as being so vital to our national interest and was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 1972 is now opposed by the entire Pennsylvania Republican congressional delegation, including Sen. Pat Toomey.
We should expect more concern for clean water from our elected representatives, but we won't get it unless they hear from you.
— Ed Perry is a resident of Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, and a member of the National Wildlife Federation.