2012 Conservation Policy Priority:
Safeguarding Clean Water
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Americans were spurred to action on clean water by images of burning rivers and local streams and lakes choked with trash. The country was also losing hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands every year. Today, in large part because of the Clean Water Act and effective state and local laws, our waters are dramatically cleaner and the rate of wetland loss has slowed significantly. Productive wetlands, especially in the Prairie Pothole Region in the Dakotas and eastern Montana, support abundant duck populations and many of our streams provide great fishing opportunities.
However, the gains we’ve made and the protections provided by the Clean Water Act are increasingly at risk. Decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in SWANCC and Rapanos and guidance that federal agencies issued about how to interpret the decisions directly jeopardize critical water resources. Taken together, they have removed protections for at least 20 million acres of wetlands, especially prairie potholes and other seasonal wetlands that are essential to waterfowl populations throughout the country. Furthermore, these decisions put intermittent and headwater streams, which may not flow all year, at greater risk of pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more than 117 million Americans receive their drinking water from public systems supplied in whole or part by these streams.
Hunters, anglers, and conservationists across the country have actively supported legislation in recent Congresses to restore historic Clean Water Act protections. Although only Congress can fully restore lost protections through legislation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and EPA can take administrative actions to ensure that certain waters remain protected while respecting the Supreme Court’s decisions. Action by these agencies is necessary and appropriate. In fact, several Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, have specifically pointed out that EPA has clear authority to define specific waters protected by the Act. In 2011, the Army Corps and EPA took the most meaningful action in a decade to begin restoring lost Clean Water Act protections. They proposed replacing guidance that is outdated and inconsistent with the Clean Water Act and Supreme Court decisions with new guidance more firmly grounded in science and the well-established hydrologic, physical, and biological connections between waters. The League strongly supports this very positive first step.
In 2012, our priority is pressing the Corps and EPA to finalize the revised guidance and initiate a rulemaking to update their regulations and more specifically define the types of waters covered by the Clean Water Act. Addressing the problem through rulemaking, which follows a rigorous process of public involvement and review, is widely supported by interested parties across the spectrum. In 2012, the League will continue to oppose Congressional actions that would limit or prohibit the Corps or EPA from using their administrative authority to restore these protections.
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