THE BLOG
05/02/2011 01:28 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2011

The Importance of the Clean Water Act

My son and I go fishing on the Rappahannock River in Virginia every now and then with the hopes of catching some bass, sunfish, maybe herring. It's a good opportunity for us to connect with each other and connect with nature. However, pollution has become a problem for the river over the years, as it has with other polluted waterways around the country. Toxic runoff filled with sediment, nutrients and bacteria from fertilizers, septic tanks and animal waste dumps from factory farms are some of the biggest culprits making our waters dirty and unfit for swimming, fishing and drinking.

The Rappahannock River flows through the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which covers six states and the District of Columbia. Contamination upstream can affect millions of people downstream in the watershed and that's just not acceptable. As a father, I'm fighting to protect clean water and the myriad streams and wetlands that support clean drinking water and outdoor recreation for my son and for future generations of Americans. I urge lawmakers not to forget the mistakes of the past -- or take for granted the central role the Clean Water Act has played in cleaning up our nation's waters. I also urge them to join me in applauding the administration's action this week to restore Clean Water Act protections for the many streams and wetlands that support the Rappahannock River, Chesapeake Bay, and clean water throughout the United States.

Everyone has the right to expect that our fundamental environmental laws will safeguard clean water, an essential ingredient for healthy communities. Rivers were so polluted 40 years ago that they were literally burning and waters were so degraded that they were virtually lifeless. It was clear to Americans and congress that our waters needed protection. With many of our nation's waters then serving as open sewers, congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. The result was one of the most successful clean-ups in the history of humankind, with nearly dead waters like Lake Erie bouncing back to health and productivity. But, old habits die hard.

Now, nearly 40 years later, a toxic combination of factors is contributing to a decline in U.S. water quality and crippling the Clean Water Act. Two divisive Supreme Court cases (SWANCC v. Army Corps of Engineers, 2001 and Rapanos v. United States, 2006) and subsequent Environmental Protection Agency guidance are causing confusion over the Clean Water Act's intent to broadly protect all important surface waters. These developments have removed or jeopardized Clean Water Act protections for more than 20 million wetland acres and an estimated 59 percent of the stream miles that sustain our communities.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 117 million people -- one third of Americans -- rely on public drinking water supplies fed by small streams no longer protected by today's weakened Clean Water Act. In addition, these decisions and agency actions have added uncertainty, cost, and delay to the Clean Water Act permitting process and otherwise undermined the ability of the federal government and the states to protect intermittently flowing streams and millions of acres of wetlands, leaving them vulnerable to pollution and destruction. In short, no one is happy with the status quo and we risk fouling our most precious resource -- water -- for our children and grandchildren.

The Environmental Protection Agency is taking a balanced and necessary step to restore the Clean Water Act and fulfill its responsibility to keep our rivers, lakes, streams, and estuaries healthy and safe. This week, the agency proposed new guidance to clarify which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act -- a question that has been muddied for nearly a decade. While congressional action is the much-needed solution, polluter special interests have stymied such action. In the face of Congressional inaction and serious ongoing pollution and destruction of our nation's waters, it is now up to the Obama Administration -- through the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers -- to restore a strong Clean Water Act.

The Obama Administration must reject opponents' efforts to politicize clean water because history shows that we can and should work together on this issue. The 1972 Clean Water Act was passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support -- more than two thirds of both houses of Congress voted for it -- and it has been vital in maintaining and restoring clean water and healthy watersheds. The passage of the act and subsequent amendments to it was led in large part by Republicans such as former Tennessee Senator Howard Baker.

Both Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush put in place policies urging wetlands protection. And the very regulations defining "waters of the United States" under attack today by special interests were put in place by President Ronald Reagan. Indeed, critical to the act's success are the Reagan-era regulations and earlier similar regulations that for nearly 30 years provided clear protections from pollution and destruction for virtually all natural surface waters. Environmental Protection Agency Administrators -- Republican and Democrat alike -- have supported this broad scope of protections to safeguard our nation's waters.

All sides recognize the critical need to restore clarity to the Clean Water Act. Both congress and the Supreme Court have failed to do so. Given the urgent need to restore protections for our nation's waters, the Environmental Protection Agency has taken an important step to strengthen and clarify Clean Water Act protections in a manner that is consistent with law, science, and public health and welfare. The guidance is open for public comment, after which the Environmental Protection Agency will finalize its guidance and proceed with a revised definition of "waters of the United States" that will help protect our most precious and vital natural resource.

The commonsense and wisdom of generations tell us that water flows downhill and across political boundaries. Playing politics and fear-mongering about the Clean Water Act makes no sense. We cannot afford to give polluters a free pass to ruin our rivers, lakes, and streams. By strengthening the Clean Water Act, we strengthen the lifeblood of our nation and our natural heritage for current and future generations.

The National Wildlife Federation inspires Americans to protect wildlife for our children's future.