GOP should protect the nation’s waters
By Frances LambertsPresident Theodore Roosevelt’s vision of rivers being connected “from [their] headwaters in the forest to [their] mouth on the coast” was evidently shared by Republicans and Democrats in the Congress when, unanimously, they passed the Clean Water Act in 1972.
So it was by Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker who saw “comprehensive coverage [of the] interrelated and interdependent types of aquatic systems” as essential to “appropriate protection of our water resources.”
Since President Richard Nixon’s time, the CWA had been interpreted as affording protection to almost all streams, wetlands, lakes and other natural water bodies.This approach changed in the last decade.
Guidance documents issued in 2003 and 2008 declared that “isolated” waters would no longer be presumed to merit protection.
The Act would straightforward apply only to water bodies directly connected to traditionally “navigable waters.”
In denying the importance of the smaller, upstream wetlands and tributaries, and of intermittent streams that may not flow year-round, downstream water quality and public drinking-water systems, and habitat for countless water-dependent wildlife were put at risk.
Environmental and major sportsmen groups, such as Trout Unlimited have asserted that the Bush Administration’s clean-water rollbacks “removed protections for at least 20 million acres of wetlands and jeopardized 59 percent of all stream miles in the United States.”
Considerable uncertainty in permitting decisions was another outcome of this policy change. A prolonged, severe drought led to water-supply difficulties and use limitation in Mountain City in the late 1990s. In this dire situation, a small seasonal stream, the Wills Branch tributary to Laurel Creek, was tapped as an emergency source for public drinking water. One may judge from this example the extreme folly of abandonment of CWA standards for most small, upstream wetlands and tributaries in the nation’s aquifers.
In April 2011, the Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency proposed new guidance.
Following a Supreme Court recommendation, it makes certain criteria for protecting water bodies more restrictive than the pre-2001 regulations. Like these, it excludes artificial water structures and preserves existing exemptions for farming, forestry, mining and other, established land-use activities. Conservation groups regard the proposal as a first step by the Obama administration to both strengthen the scientific foundation of the CWA and restore its protections for most of the nation’s waters, as originally intended by the Congress.
When the Corps and EPA solicited public input on the guidance, more than 90 percent of some 230,000 individuals’ comments supported the proposal.
Yet the House of Representatives, not once but twice, in July 2011 and on June 1, placed a prohibition of any changes to the Bush-era interpretation of the clean-water law into the Corp’s annual funding bill.
The rider disallowing consideration of the traditional protection standards of the CWA was supported both times by all Tennessee GOP members, including Congressman Phil Roe.
Whatever happened to the party that once supported, if not spearheaded, conservation and clean-environment resources? It is now quite at odds, in these matters, with the great majority of the American people.