There is so much misinformation in Congressman Glenn Thompson’s Aug. 12 op-ed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule to reinstate federal protection for headwater streams and wetlands that I scarcely know where to begin.
I spent 30 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an aquatic biologist working in the Clean Water Act regulatory program. My career began just two years after the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. For the next 31 years, the law provided federal protection to all the waters of the United States. However, in 2003 and 2008, the Bush administration changed the regulations through informal guidance, which reduced federal protection for headwater streams and adjacent wetlands.
Contrary to Thompson’s misinformation, EPA’s proposed rule does only one thing: It restores federal protection to waters of the United States that had been in place for 31 years — until that protection was taken away by the Bush administration. It is not an expansion of federal jurisdiction; it merely restores what has been taken away by an administration unfriendly to clean water standards.
If, as Thompson asserts, the “…rule poses a fundamental threat to our economy and way of life…” it didn’t do a very good job. Because from the enactment of the Clean Water Act in 1972 to its gutting by the Bush administration in 2003, our gross domestic product doubled. Clearly, having clean water has benefited every single one of us.
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The fact is, if you are not attempting to drain or fill a wetland to farm it, this rule does not change anything that had not been in place in the 31-year period from 1972 to 2003. If you are farming an area, and have been farming it, or are beginning to farm an area, and are not attempting to convert a wetland or a stream to another use, then this rule does not apply to normal farming practices.
Thompson mistakenly asserts that Congress only wanted navigable waters regulated; that is, larger rivers that carry interstate commerce. However, when Congress passed the Clean Water Act, it defined navigable waters broadly as “waters of the United States” and explained in the Conference Report that “…the term ‘navigable waters’ was to be given the broadest constitutional interpretation unencumbered by agency determinations, which have been made, or may be made, for administrative purposes.”
The main reason for having a single federal water quality protection standard that applies across the country is to prevent what is called “the race to the bottom.” In other words, without a federal standard applying to all states, some states would weaken their water pollution regulations in order to make their state more attractive to businesses, giving them a competitive advantage. This is exactly what was happening before the act’s passage, and what Thompson now supports.
I was born and raised overlooking the steel mills in Cleveland, about a quarter-mile from where the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. So I know something about poor water quality. When I was growing up, Lake Erie was declared dead, and the nation was in an uproar because our waters were so polluted.
The public demanded action, and with overwhelming bipartisan support, Congress acted. The rest is history, and despite all the development, we enjoy some of the highest water quality of any developed nation. We learned that simply regulating pollution discharges into large, traditionally navigable waters, as Thompson supports, was not enough because most pollution emanates from small headwater streams and is carried downstream into our lakes and drinking water supplies.
But the Bush administration’s changes to the regulations have weakened protection and opened up millions of acres of wetlands and thousands of miles of headwater streams for development and new sources of pollution. These headwater stream systems are the foundation of our nation’s fish and wildlife resources, and provide clean drinking water to more than one-third of Americans.
So why on earth is Thompson advocating that we go back to the bad old days?