A New Year’s Resolution: Protecting the Nation’s Waters for Wildlife

In this season of New Year’s resolutions, we call upon the Obama Administration to resolve  to fix the broken Clean Water Act by restoring protection to the Nation’s wetlands, lakes, and streams that wildlife and people depend on.

Great Egret Fishing, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, credit: Shawn Beelman via flickr

When Congress passed the 1972 Clean Water Act, it committed “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”  For 30 some years, we made progress; we cleaned up our burning, polluted rivers and protected valuable wetland and stream habitat by safeguarding all “Waters of the United States” – from the babbling brooks of New England to the duck breeding prairie potholes of the Dakotas and the playa lakes of the arid Southwest.

The Clean Water Act was effectively broken when the historic understanding of the broad scope of “Waters of the United States” was called into question by two sharply divided Supreme Court decisions, the SWANCC decision in 2001, and the Rapanos decision in 2006.  These decisions and subsequent agency interpretations have:

  • Removed or jeopardized Clean Water Act protections for over 20 million wetland acres and an estimated 59% of the stream miles on which fish and wildlife, and our communities depend.
  • Added uncertainty, cost, and delay to the Clean Water Act permitting process, undermining the effectiveness of the Clean Water Act itself.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that over 117 million people – more than one-third of Americans – rely on surface water protection areas fed by waters that may no longer be protected by the Clean Water Act.  Without these protections, we are at-risk of fouling our most precious resource – water – for our children and grandchildren.

Adding insult to injury, Clean Water Act safeguards have been further compromised by loopholes that allow mining companies to dump toxic waste into pristine lakes and streams. Places like Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, one of America’s most spectacular places and home to the world’s largest runs of sockeye salmon, is at risk from a gold and copper mine that would depend on these loopholes to operate.

In the face of almost a decade of Congressional inaction and serious on-going pollution and destruction of America’s waters, it is now up to the Obama Administration – through the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers – to fulfill its Clean Water promises by formal rulemaking to restore and clarify the scope of Clean Water Act protections in a manner that is consistent with the law, the science, and the public’s health and welfare.

As the new decade dawns, let us all renew our commitment to clean water and hold our elected officials accountable to the values we established almost forty years ago. Whether you’re concerned about the water from your drinking tap, Alaska’s salmon runs, North America’s duck populations, or flooding due to wetland draining and filling, your voice can make a difference in ensuring healthy clean water for people and wildlife alike.

Caroline Wick contributed to this post.

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Published: December 17, 2010