Skip to content Skip to left sidebar Skip to right sidebar Skip to footer

Water-protection rule under attack

A poem in Wendell Berry’s Farming Handbook is titled “Water.” In the opening lines it recalls being “born in a drouth year [when] my mother waited, in the sun and dry ceaseless wind, for the men to come back in the evenings bringing water from a distant spring.”
Primarily to secure their freshwater springs, origins of the larger streams and rivers, President Theodore Roosevelt found it needful to establish the “forest reserves.” These he thought critical for assuring water supply and purity, especially in drought prone western areas but also in “the Nation as a whole.”
Likewise, he regarded river systems to be unitary wholes, from their small, intermittent head-water bodies all the way to the sea, to be regarded as such under the law.
Despite use of the word “navigable” in the Clean Water Act, its interpretation over 40 years by the Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency had not equated healthfulness of water bodies with their suitability for or limitation to commercial navigation. From the law’s first implementation, whether involving small seasonal headwaters and their wetlands, or the larger downstream water bodies, human impact activities that could harm water cleanliness or abundance were considered subject to regulatory review and mitigation.
But under loopholes created through Supreme Court rulings early in the last decade, and subsequent Bush administration guidance which abandoned routine protection of temporary streams, more than half of the nation’s stream miles and millions of wetlands acres were placed at risk of unchecked pollution.
Indeed, in our own state, the small intermittent streams supply 57 percent of river miles with surface water intakes for public drinking water systems.
In March this year, the Army Corps and EPA reinstated the traditional interpretation of the Clean Water Act. They proposed a new WOTUS (Waters of the United States) rule that would again, as historically since President Nixon, protect most seasonal streams and wetlands near them, while maintaining the “pre-existing” agricultural exemptions. The agencies estimate the cost benefits of the rule to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, such as through flood protection or filtering out health-damaging pollution.
As the Nov. 14 deadline for public input on the WOTUS rule approaches, corporate funded industrial user groups and GOP lawmakers have sharpened their attacks on the agencies over it. Strongly opposing the protection of temporary waterways and with assertions such as of “federal land grab,” of science findings being undermined and Americans being intentionally misled about economy-destroying impacts, withdrawal instead of finalization of the “flawed rule” is their demand.
Under warming climate, the “Water” poet’s dread of the return of drought years is becoming a stark reality for large areas of the country.
Add a swelling population, now quadruple the number in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, and the demand for exclusion of small streams from the protective umbrella of the Clean Water Act seems extraordinarily bad policy.
One is grateful to note the absence of Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker from the list of EPA-bashing U.S. senators.