When Congress passed the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1972, it was hailed as a landmark victory for environmentalism, providing protection for America's waterways and setting a precedent for future legislation. The original intent of the bill was to provide protection to rivers, which had long served as dumping grounds for industrial waste and municipal effluents. Over time, however, it has become apparent that broader safeguards are needed.
The rivers and tributaries that fall under CWA protection do not exist in isolation. They are fed by a vast network of streams and wetlands which filter sediments and regulate water levels. These wetlands are essential for the health of the rivers, but also provide breeding grounds for commercial fish species, form travel corridors for migratory birds and preserve biodiversity.
Today, the EPA estimates that less than 46 percent of America's primordial wetlands still exist. They have been drained, filled in and polluted, resulting in silted rivers and uncontrolled flooding that cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Despite this, no major updates of the CWA have been passed and many wetlands remain unprotected. In fact, two rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court (Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. Army Corp of Engineers
and Rapanos v. the United States
) have actually limited the scope of the Act by narrowing the interpretation of which waterways fall under protection.
This may be about to change, however. In April of 2009, a group of senators led by Russell Feingold (D-WI) introduced the Clean Water Restoration Act (S.787)
. As it currently stands, the CWA defines protected waterways as "navigable waters" or those tributaries with a "significant nexus" to a navigable waterway. Under the Supreme Court's interpretation this excludes most wetlands, many of which lie miles from the rivers they protect and feed. S.787 proposes that the words "navigable waters" be replaced with "waters of the United States." This small change would give the EPA and its partners the authority to regulate pollution and misuse throughout entire watersheds, protecting the integrity of whole systems rather than just a single part.
Despite the obvious benefits of preserving wetlands, lobbyists have managed to drum up serious opposition to the bill, raising fears that the broad inclusion of all waterways will limit the rights of farmers and landowners. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that S.787 is nothing more than the legal justification for an immense land grab by the federal government.
In response to this, readers might recall the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA), an early predecessor of the CWA which faced similar criticisms when it was introduced in 1948. Opponents proclaimed that states' rights were being trampled and that the federal government was impinging upon landowners.
And yet, in the sixty-one years that have passed since, there have been no land grabs, no appreciable loss of states' rights and no major challenges to the rights of citizens to manage their private lands. The only things that have changed are that our rivers are cleaner, commerce and recreation are revitalized and wildlife is protected.
Please contact your elected officials and let them know that you support clean water everywhere in America. Or get involved, follow S.787's progress
and let Congress know how you feel about conservation!
Photos: tlindenbaum/Flickr and Jeff Kubina/Flickr