The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers are close to finalizing a rule clarifying longstanding Clean Water Act protections for many streams, wetlands, and other waterways important to fish and wildlife, our communities, and our economy.
This proposed rule does only one thing. It clarifies and restores Clean Water Act safeguards for waterbodies protected by the Act for nearly 30 years before agency guidance in 2003 and 2007 called into question whether the Act extended federal protection to headwater streams, adjacent wetlands, and so-called isolated wetlands.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and every Republican member of Congress from Pennsylvania vehemently oppose this common sense rule. What they fail to understand is their opposition to clean water has unintended consequences for the entire Keystone state.
Despite federal Clean Water Act protections for the aforementioned waters being weakened for the past 13 years, there has been virtually no change here in Pennsylvania. That’s because our stream and wetland regulations provide protection equal to, and in some cases, better than the Corps’ and EPA’s program. In other words, the state’s regulated community, including our vital farming community, has seen absolutely no change to stream or wetland protections for the past 13 years.
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However, Congressional opposition to this clarifying rule has weakened Pennsylvania’s competitiveness for business. Not all states have the same level of clean water safeguards as we do. Hence weakened federal protection can make other states more attractive to businesses that wouldn’t have to comply with the state’s more stringent stream and wetland regulations.
Former Gov. Tom Ridge recognized this jeopardy when he took office in 1995. In one of his first acts, he directed our state agencies to review their regulations to ensure they were no more stringent than federal regulations. He just wanted to ensure Pennsylvania remained competitive. But it is hard to remain competitive when other states can advertise their wetlands and streams are open for development.
Past experience has shown that as federal clean water standards are weakened, so go the state standards. This is the very “race to the bottom” that Congress intended to prevent when it passed the 1972 Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Rule currently on the table will simply reinstate a clear, uniform standard that ensures all states protect their wetlands and streams at least to the same degree that Pennsylvania does. Delaying and derailing the Clean Water Rule will leave Pennsylvania at a competitive disadvantage.
Other adverse consequences of Congressional opposition to restoring Clean Water Act protections to isolated wetlands are the loss of natural flood control that wetlands provide, as well as protection for drinking water sources that millions of Americans depend on. And let’s not forget the recreational opportunities these critical habitats provide to millions of Americans like me. Bird watching, waterfowl hunting, trout fishing, to name a few are big business, generating billions of tourism and recreational equipment dollars each year.
In Pennsylvania, headwater streams and isolated wetlands are the life-blood of our exceptional trout streams. Fully 20 percent of the state’s wetlands are located in the Pocono region. Many could be categorized as isolated. It’s no coincidence that the state’s Clean Streams Law designates nearly every stream in this region as either High Quality or Exceptional Value. The isolated wetlands and small headwater streams that protect these cherished trout streams are the main reason the Poconos is a destination for many anglers from near and afar. The proposed rule opposed by Sen. Toomey and others will assure that these important aquatic systems will continue to provide economic benefits and clean drinking water for generations to come.
The EPA’s Clean Water Rule is both legally and scientifically sound and will put every state in the country back on a path toward restoring the Nation’s waterways. Congress needs to abandon its reckless efforts to stop it from happening.