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Op-Ed: Water act hits stormy seas
By Jack Lessenberry
Traverse City Record Eagle
Published April 21, 2008

ANN ARBOR -- Nobody doubts that Vern Ehlers, who represents the Grand Rapids area in Congress, is a conservative.

He is a pillar of the Christian Reformed Church and a stalwart Republican; at 74, he shares a birthday with one of his political heroes, Ronald Reagan. But he is also genuinely worried about the Great Lakes, and the water supply generally, which is why he is the major co-sponsor of the Clean Water Restoration Act of 2007.

"Conservatives ought to remember their legacy of conservation, and that to be conservative means to conserve what is good," he said in an interview. "We are the party of Teddy Roosevelt, who started the modern conservation movement. But unfortunately, some vocal members of our party tend to forget that."

Ehlers came to Washington in a special election just a few months before Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" warriors took control of Congress in 1994. He is often identified with that generation of Republicans, especially since Gingrich named him to his transition team. But Vernon Ehlers is unlike most of his colleagues in a couple ways. For one thing, he is a scientist.

He has a Ph.D in physics, and was a professor before seeking a seat in the state Legislature in 1982. Perhaps because of this, he normally insists on solid research before backing legislation. He also is far more open to compromise than many of his colleagues.

Yet he doesn't think there is any room to compromise on protecting our drinking water. Unfortunately, as he sees it, the U.S. Supreme Court helped make a mess of things two years ago.

Back in a more environmentally-friendly era, Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, which was meant to do just that -- keep the nation's water clean. Then, in 2006, John Rapanos, a Michigan developer, sued because he had been barred from developing wetlands. The court's decision threw everything into confusion.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a 5-4 majority, ruled that isolated wetlands and ponds and remote tiny streams were protected only if a "significant nexus" could be shown connecting them to a navigable body of water downstream.

This has been a disaster, environmentalists contend. More than half the nation's duck population may be threatened. They spend summers in an area called the "Prairie Pothole" that stretches from Minnesota to Montana, and winter in a series of lakes in the Texas Panhandle. None of their waters are now protected.

The New York Times wrote about a pristine stream in Alabama that was horribly polluted. The company responsible got away with it, because, again, there was no "significant nexus" between that stream and a navigable body of water. Ehlers thinks this is nonsense.

All water needs to be protected, "because all water flows downstream." He has talked to colleagues who were around when the original Clean Water Act was passed, and he knows that protecting all America's waters was what was intended.

So he has cosponsored, with U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, a Clean Water Restoration Act. It would clear up the confusion by substituting for "navigable waters" the words "waters of the United States." In case that phrase is insufficiently clear, the sponsors define the protected area as "all waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, the territorial seas, and all interstate and intrastate waters and their tributaries, including lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams) mudflats, sandflats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, playa lakes, natural ponds and all ... activities affecting these waters."

The act has run into some tough sledding; it is opposed by both ultraconservatives, who tend to oppose regulation of anything, and some sportsmen. Nor is it clear whether President Bush would sign the Clean Water Restoration Act, even if it made it through both houses of Congress this session, as now seems unlikely.

But hundreds of other groups support it, and Ehlers intends to keep fighting. After all, you don't have to be a Ph.D in physics to know that water flows downhill.

Nor do you have to be a scientist to realize that if we ruin our water supply, we will be doomed as a species.


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