Are we about to backslide on public health?
John Dingell and James Oberstar
Published October 21, 2007
Before 1972, raw sewage and poisonous industrial waste were routinely dumped into our rivers and streams. Before 1972, urban rivers posed a fire hazard to their surrounding cities. Before 1972, the Great Lakes were dying. Before 1972, wetlands were being drained and filled without consideration of the repercussions.
Then came the Clean Water Act.
Thursday marked the 35th anniversary of one of the most effective, meaningful laws ever enacted. When it was approved by Congress in 1972, the Clean Water Act was a visionary effort to improve water quality across the nation.
Over the past 35 years, the act has demonstrated the success of a federal-state partnership that finds practical solutions for improving and protecting the nation's water supplies and protecting our wetlands. It established the authority for the Environmental Protection Agency to set a uniform baseline for the protection of waters that individual states can build upon to meet local needs. This federal baseline eliminated interstate conflicts that arose when an upstream state chose not to protect its waters and downstream states had little recourse. The act's effectiveness is readily measurable: The number of rivers, lakes and bays that are safe enough for fishing and swimming has doubled since 1972. In addition, the loss rate of wetlands, which serve several useful functions, including providing flood control and habitat for wildlife, has slowed significantly.
Although we have made enormous strides since the statute's enactment, efforts to clean up America's waters have stalled -- even slipped -- under the stewardship of the Bush administration.
One-third of America's waterways still are not fishable and swimmable. Further, a recent study found that in 2005, 57 percent of all major U.S. industrial and municipal facilities discharged more pollution into our waterways than allowed by law and that the average facility exceeded its pollution permit limit by 263 percent, discharging close to four times the legal limit.
Today, we understand there is a strong nexus between environmental conditions and public health. Ask yourself: Do you want to go back to the days when raw sewage containing pesticides and fertilizers was discharged into the Great Lakes and soap suds floated down the Ohio River?
The Bush administration has been complicit in weakening the Clean Water Act's safeguards and slashing funding for federal agencies charged with implementing and enforcing the nation's environmental laws. By failing to sufficiently invest in water infrastructure over the past several years, the federal government has impeded municipalities' efforts to protect watersheds, provide safe drinking water, and make recreational water sources fishable and swimmable. As a result, the Bush administration has undermined the nation's heretofore successful efforts to protect an irreplaceable natural resource for future generations.
Recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court have weakened federal efforts to safeguard against toxic water and other damaging elements. In a series of confusing and convoluted rulings, the court has muddied commonly understood responsibilities to the point at which nobody actually knows who is ultimately tasked with protecting the nation's waters. What we do know, however, is that without federal protection, wetlands could be destroyed or degraded and our water could be polluted, without regard to the impact on the environment or on human needs.
The original intent
Contrary to what some would have you believe, Congress intended the Clean Water Act's protection to extend to all waters and wetlands, including tributaries that flow only intermittently and do not have a continuous surface connection. Congress' intent to protect wetlands that are isolated and not adjacent to open waters arose from very practical considerations: It is far easier and more cost-effective to control pollution at the source rather than to address its impacts downstream. Navigability was not the goal of the Clean Water Act -- preventing pollution was.
Opponents of the Clean Water Act want to maintain the uncertainties of water protections and reopen the debate on the scope of the Clean Water Act, which places valuable water resources at risk. We strongly disagree.
We have introduced the Clean Water Restoration Act to clarify Congress' original intent regarding the federal government's jurisdictional scope and to restore the longstanding interpretations by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. The bill provides much-needed certainty for federal and state regulators, as well as for communities and other stakeholders, and it reduces costly permitting delays and paperwork requirements. Simply put, the Clean Water Restoration Act restores the federal-state partnership in protecting water quality.
Today, America is at a crossroads on clean water. The federal government can move backward or forward. Which path will it choose?
We are committed to finishing the job that began 35 years ago with the passage of the Clean Water Act. It is our responsibility to this generation, and our legacy to future generations, to advance the cause of protecting the most precious of natural resources -- clean water. We owe the American people no less.
John Dingell, D-Mich., and James Oberstar, D-Minn., are members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Both men were involved in the drafting or passage of the Clean Water Act.