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Hill politics churns small streams

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Are smaller, upstream water bodies such as intermittent streams covered by the federal Clean Water Act? This is not an insignificant question: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined that 117 million Americans depend to some extent on these sources for their drinking water.

Yet defining what actually constitutes a body of water has spawned fierce debate and numerous court cases since this ambitious and complex statute was enacted in 1948 and strengthened in 1972. Recently, in an effort to cover the maximum number of water sources while still adhering to legal guidelines, the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued draft guidance detailing the distinctions among various waters the federal law does and does not cover.

However, bills recently introduced in Congress propose to bar the EPA and the Corps from moving forward with the guidance document, prolonging the uncertainty and delaying further protection for America's water sources. The bill's supporters argue that the EPA is attempting to regulate and protect waters far beyond the original intention of the Clean Water Act.

This reasoning fails to consider the reality that water resources are much more complex than the policies that govern them.

Intermittent streams, headwaters and other upstream sources can contribute to pollution that may adversely affect the health of people and the environment downstream. The EPA and Corps propose to clarify the federal government's stance on ambiguous situations that were not explicitly mentioned in the original policies but might still legally fall under the Clean Water Act. Establishing which waters are covered with clearer and more transparent guidelines would benefit all parties involved--EPA regulators, state and local governments, private interests and the public.

The legislative proposals to hamstring the EPA and Corps ignore the reality that protecting America's water resources is a complex process. Ultimately, the bills would undercut the protection provided for our water resources. Why undermine environmental and public health?

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