Clean water is essential to all life. Since the Clean Water Act became law in 1972, it has been our first line of defense against water pollution and wetlands development. Some of us are old enough to remember what our lakes and rivers were like before then. Lake Erie was declared “dead.” The Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so polluted that in 1969 it caught fire. Sixty percent of all lakes and rivers were not fishable or swimmable.
The Clean Water Act set a course to change that, making it illegal to dredge, fill, or pollute the waters and wetlands of the United States. Since then we have made steady progress toward safer and cleaner water. As a result, Lake Erie has recovered. The Cuyahoga River is now so attractive that it is part of the National Park System. Most of our lakes and rivers are now fishable and swimmable, even though much more still needs to be done to raise all U.S. waters to that standard.
Unfortunately, instead of strengthening clean water protections, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued two rulings that reversed course and stopped more than three decades of progress. First, the so-called SWANCC decision declared that “isolated,” non-navigable, intrastate wetlands are no longer protected under the act. These wetlands do not have direct surface flows into a navigable stream, but they serve important wetlands functions and they deserve protection under federal law.
This extreme interpretation of the law hampers wetland protection for the benefit of developers. Many wetlands in the arid West are isolated, including more than half of all wetlands in California. The same is true for the prairie potholes and playa lakes in the central United States that are so important for waterbirds. In parts of the Upper Midwest, drainage ditch contractors are now soliciting business door-to-door by telling landowners how to increase the value of their land by draining isolated wetlands.
Then the Court issued the so-called Rapanos and Carabell decision, which could further gut clean water protections and has created massive confusion about what tributaries and wetlands are covered by the act.
Congressman James Oberstar (D-MN) has now introduced legislation to undo these damaging rulings and end the confusion. The legislation is called the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act (HR 1356). A companion bill (S. 912) has been introduced in the Senate by Russell Feingold (D-WI). This legislation is intended to reinstate the federal clean water protections that had been in place since 1972, up until the time of these Court rulings.
In the November election, voters sent a message to their representatives that some important policies were heading in the wrong direction and needed to get back on track. We believe that protecting clean water is one of those policies. Please urge your elected representatives to support HR 1356 and S. 912, and full federal protection for our nation’s waters and wetlands. For additional information on how you can help, go to www.audubon.org, go to “Issues & Action,” and click on “Clean Water.”—John Flicker