A well-coordinated attack is being waged on a proposed federal rule aimed at clarifying Clean Water Act protection for the nation’s water resources – the same environmentally and economically vital waterways on which, it bears mentioning, our food, water and energy systems are highly dependent. For more than a decade, lack of clarity has left many of our nation’s waters unprotected. According to Clean Water Action, this includes “20 million acres of wetlands, 60 percent of all streams, including headwater, intermittent, and ephemeral streams that supply public drinking water systems that serve 117 million Americans – 5,646 public water supply systems.”
Why are streams and wetlands so vital? In short, it’s their connection (or “connectivity”) to downstream waters. As explained in the proposed rule to define “Waters of the United States,” EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) prepared a “draft peer-reviewed synthesis of published peer-reviewed scientific literature discussing the nature of connectivity and effects of streams and wetlands on downstream waters.” The ORD Report found “that the scientific literature clearly demonstrates that streams, regardless of their size or how frequently they flow, strongly influence how downstream waters function.” Downstream waters include larger water bodies such as lakes, rivers and estuaries in watersheds across the US.
Streams and wetlands “act as the most effective buffer to protect downstream waters” from intangible, nonpoint source pollution (such as nitrogen and phosphorus, found in fertilizer, manure and sewage), “provide habitat for breeding fish and aquatic insects that also live in streams, and retain floodwaters, sediment, nutrients, and contaminants that could otherwise negatively impact the condition or function of downstream waters.” It is this nonpoint source pollution that is behind the toxic algal blooms plaguing the Great Lakes (remember last week’s tap water ban for residents of Toledo, Ohio?), Long Island Sound estuary to the coastal waters of Southern California.
Clarification of Clean Water Act jurisdiction was needed in the wake of Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 and ensuing agency guidance that, pardon the pun, muddied the waters. For years, federal, state and local officials along with industry, agriculture, environmental groups and the public have been calling for a rulemaking to help eliminate confusion surrounding the scope of protections for streams and wetlands so that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can more effectively and efficiently pursue water pollution cases.
As you may know, the proposed rule, jointly released by the EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers (two agencies not likely to win any popularity contests), has prompted “inflammatory” and “outlandish” allegations from the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest farm lobbying group in the country, and others through a cleverly titled but misleading website, Ditch the Rule.
According to Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman the proposed rule, if finalized, threatens farmers, ranchers and other landowners. “Under EPA’s proposed new rule, waters – even ditches – are regulated even if they are miles from the nearest ‘navigable’ waters. Indeed, so-called ‘waters’ are regulated even if they aren’t wet most of the time,” says Stallman. In response, the EPA counters that the proposed rule, supported by the latest peer-reviewed science, in fact, “reduces regulation of ditches because for the first time it would exclude ditches that are constructed through dry lands and don’t have water year-round.” If you’re thinking to yourself that these two interpretations of the same proposed rule couldn’t be more different, you’d be right.
Listening to the Farm Bureau, you’d think that our economy will crumble under the rule. Luckily, the reality is actually the opposite when you consider what water means to our society. As the EPA’s Nancy Stoner voices in a recent editorial, “water doesn’t just nourish our people -- it sustains a strong American economy.” Says Stoner, “Businesses big and small all depend on clean water.” (Seriously, how many businesses can you think of that don’t depend in some way on clean water?) We need to view streams and wetlands as economic drivers, explains the EPA in its “Ditch the Myth” resources. And why not, given the important role healthy water resources play in agriculture. Yeah that’s right, Farm Bureau, protecting water is good for agriculture! (As well as energy, manufacturing, recreation, fishing and hunting.)
Streams and wetlands – which feed rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters – provide many benefits to communities. They trap floodwaters, recharge groundwater supplies, remove pollution and provide habitat for fish and wildlife. EPA puts the potential economic benefits of the proposed rule at $390 to $510 million, about double the potential costs ($160 to $278 million).
There is other research that demonstrates the value of healthy water (and land) resources. Take for instance, a groundbreaking study released by the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority. This “first-ever valuation” examined the economic benefits people obtain from Santa Clara County’s water resources, open space, natural areas and working landscapes. The study, done by Earth Economics, found that Santa County’s “natural capital provides a stream of nature’s benefits, or ecosystem services ” that include water supply and quality, not to mention clean air, reduced fire and flood risk, waste treatment, wildlife habitat, pollination, healthy food and recreation. According to the study, Nature’s Value, the annual value of ecosystem services in the County ranges from $1.6 to $3.9 billion. “Nature’s Value found that the asset value of Santa Clara County’s natural capital – open space lands, natural areas, farms and ranchlands – is between $162 and $386 billion.”
Let’s not forget the reason why we are even having this discussion regarding the proposed rule, which remains open for public comment through October 20. Up until recently, our water resources have been in decline, and still are in some cases. Four decades ago, two-thirds of America’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters were unsafe for fishing and swimming, says the EPA. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, that number has been cut in half. However, one-third of the nation’s waters still do not meet standards.
We can’t take clean water for granted and we mustn’t let scare tactics get in the way of clarifying the Clean Water Act and cleaning up our waterways. “Farm Bureau and DC-based lobbyists for corporate ag are trying to mislead and scare America’s farmers and ranchers,” says Kendra Kimbirauskas, chief executive officer of The Socially Responsible Agricultural Project. “Most family farmers and ranchers want common sense and easy to understand rules that help them protect the clean water that they depend on.”
If nothing else, the Farm Bureau’s aggressive campaign has served to remind us just how valuable clean water resources are to our livelihoods and communities and to our national economy.
A shout-out to the River Network for their recent outreach and education about the proposed rule. The following post by Merritt Frey features a roundup of information on this issue.
Other environmental groups increasing awareness about the proposed rule include the Waterkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Clean Water Action and Environment America.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has a helpful Q&A about the proposed rule.