10/18/2007 02:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Water, Water, Everywhere

Washington, DC -- "Nor any drop to drink" was how Samuel Taylor Coleridge phrased it in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Avoiding that risk was why Congress, 35 years ago, passed the Clean Water Act and then overrode President Nixon's veto. For a long time the Act was a great success story. The percentage of polluted waterways fell steadily every year, and by the end of the century about half of the job had been done. But since that time we've been going backwards, and the clean water success story is gradually morphing into a new clean water crisis.

Crucial to understanding why is another familiar saying -- water flows downhill. As a Sierra Club report made clear this year, it is the headwaters of a stream, the tiny seeps, wetlands, springs and seasonal creeks that drain most of a watershed, and carry either clean, or polluted, H2O to larger tributaries and rivers.

But several Supreme Court rulings have left it unclear whether these headland water sources -- which generate 90 percent of the water and sediment going into rivers -- are fully protected by the Clean Water Act. And in 2003 the Bush administration issued a "guidance document" telling EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers not to protect these headwaters from development or pollution.

As a result, drinking water supplies for 110 million Americans are at risk. Congress, alarmed by this threat, has been considering legislation that would clarify that, yes indeed, the headwaters that drain 90 percent of the country are, indeed, part of the Clean Water Act's mandates to safeguard "the waters of the United States." (These are, after all, waters, and they are not on Mars, or even in Luxembourg.) This common sense solution would simply restore the law as it stood from 1972 until 2002.

But now a coalition of opponents of clean water --including many state chapters of the Farm Bureau, the Cattlemen and mining interests -- have sent House Speaker Pelosi a hyperbolic, superheated and, frankly, over-the-top letter claiming, among other things, that "The expansive authority assumed by the federal government under the Clean Water Act has been poisonous to the rights of American citizens," and that "A bill is now making its way through the House that would, according to one legal expert, push 'the limits of federal power to an extreme not matched by any other law, probably in the history of this country.'"

These ridiculous statements might be funny if the pressure from our opponents were not keeping legislators from supporting the law.

And it's clear that the failure to protect headwaters is proving deadly to even the greatest of our water bodies -- the Mississippi. A new analysis by the National Academy of Sciences finds that while point-sources -- factories and sewage treatment plants -- have largely been cleaned up, the Mississippi has become an "orphan" of the regulatory process because of the failure to protect wetlands and headwaters or to deal with run-off from small sources:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must take a more aggressive leadership role in implementing the Clean Water Act if water quality in the Mississippi River and the northern Gulf of Mexico is to improve, says a new report from the National Research Council. EPA has failed to use its authority under the act to adequately coordinate and oversee state activities along the Mississippi and ensure progress toward the act's goal of "fishable and swimmable" waters, the report says. States along the river also must be more proactive and cooperative in their efforts to monitor and improve water quality.

So from the smallest seep to the mighty Father of Waters, the 35th anniversary of the Clean Water Act is a time for renewed dedication -- because, while well more than 90 percent of Americans want the strongest possible protection of clean water, numerically small but well-entrenched interests and influential ideologues don't want the government to respect this public will. After all, they say, we need to get clear "what is ... not to be protected."

How sad.