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Science vs. the Clean Water Act Rollbacks

Melissa Waage, Campaign Director, Washington, DC

Scientists and clean water experts are gathering in Washington, DC this week to defend threatened wetlands, critical drinking water supplies, unique kinds of water bodies like prairie potholes—and the fundamental science of clean water. A couple dozen scientists in a hotel conference room in downtown Washington could have a real impact on pollution in your drinking water source. (Seriously. Check out this map). So how did we get here?

At issue are polluter-friendly rollbacks of protections under the Clean Water Act, which have left protection in doubt for many small streams and wetlands. In a long-awaited effort to fix this problem, the Environmental Protection Agency has drafted a report about the importance of these smaller water bodies to water quality downstream. EPA has convened a Science Advisory Board of the nation’s top clean water scientists to review their work and to accept comments from members of the public, including NRDC water experts Karen Hobbs and Jon Devine.

Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 and designed it to safeguard all the “waters of the United States” from unregulated pollution discharges.

But muddled court rulings in 2001 and 2006 created uncertainty over whether certain kinds of waters—such as small, headwater streams that feed larger water bodies—are protected under that law. The Bush administration further complicated matters by issuing “guidance” that fomented doubt over the law’s ability to keep pollution out of certain kinds of waters.

These legal and regulatory attacks on the Clean Water Act rest on a challenge to well-established science that supports common sense: water flows downhill. Pollution upstream, in smaller streams, flows downstream to impact larger lakes, rivers, and coastal waters. 

Polluting industries, like big agriculture, mining, and some developers, were a driving force behind this challenge to the science. These same industries continue to fight through lobbying and lawsuits to preserve the useful uncertainty over where they may or may not be allowed to pollute.

As a result, implementing the Clean Water Act in some cases has become difficult, time-consuming and expensive.  For example, even after crude oil was discharged into Edwards Creek near Talco, Texas, EPA didn’t bother to take action because it was too complicated to determine whether the creek was covered by the Clean Water Act. There have been hundreds of such cases across America.

This “uncertainty” may not seem like such a big deal at first. But when you look at the number of waters that could be affected, the magnitude of the problem is apparent: 

  • about 20 percent of the roughly 110 million acres of wetlands in the continental United States, and
  • all U.S. streams that lack permanent flow, of which there are nearly two million miles outside of Alaska.
  •  The water bodies in question are drinking water sources for 117 million Americans.

Now the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is starting to fix this problem. This week, EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) is holding a public hearing on a new study that analyzes the various ways that headwater streams and wetlands are linked to other waters.  This scientific study is expected to be the foundation for an update to the national clean water rules, likely to be proposed soon, specifying what types of waters are protected under the Clean Water Act. Such clarification would restore protections for waters that supply much of our drinking water and provide numerous other benefits. 

Science will have its day this week. But, with restored protections moving to the top of the agenda, polluters and their allies in Congress are working furiously to block the new regulation, and many of them are expected to testify at this hearing. House and Senate Republicans have already demanded that EPA withdraw the draft rule, which they falsely claim is a significant expansion of prior protections. An internal EPA analysis says the new rule would increase the waters covered by the Clean Water Act by three percent compared to today, and would cover fewer waters than before the court rulings. 

So streams, wetlands, and science need our support this week and in the weeks to come. We’ll be back with an update soon; in the meantime, you can weigh in with President Obama and ask him to stand up to polluters and fix the Clean Water Act loophole here

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Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on December 21, 2013

Thanks for the post Melissa. I personally would settle for nothing less than full culpability of Developers and Corporations exercising mineral and resource extraction that degrades the quality of the environment under exploitation and extraction; or degrades the quality of an area adversely impacted by fugitive emissions or sustances attendant to the extraction or processing of minerals and or materials from the area. As a former Boy Scout; I was enlightened  with the belief that I should leave an area I visit in the wilderness in better shape and appearance than it was when I got there. It is a simple enough philosophy; and easy to exercise. I believe Industry should be held to such standards as well. Simplt put, if an insustry makes a mess; said industry should clean it up.

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