The Obama administration has just finalized a new rule to help protect drinking water for one in three Americans. By shielding streams and wetlands that have been vulnerable to pollution since the 2000's, the president is giving us the best news we've had for clean water in years. But while safeguards for our drinking water have now been signed and sealed, they won't get delivered if polluters and their allies in Congress stand in the way.
The new rule has been a long time in the making. Citizens and activists have campaigned for more than half a century to win baseline protections for the rivers, lakes, and streams where we fish, swim, and get our drinking water.
In the late 1960's, our water resources were in trouble. In Ohio, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. Bacteria levels in the Hudson River were 170 times safe levels. Pollution from food processing plants in Florida killed a record 26 million fish. In all, two-thirds of the nation's waters were too polluted for fishing or swimming.
Citizens and politicians of all stripes banded together in 1972 to pass the Clean Water Act, overcoming polluters who had used our waterways as their personal sewers with little to no consequence. The law declared that all waterways would be "fishable and swimmable" in the next decade.
Our waters got cleaner after the passage of the Clean Water Act. The rapid loss of our wetlands began to slow. From the Hudson, to the Charles, to the Great Lakes, to the Puget Sound, rivers and lakes began to be restored to health. The number of rivers and lakes clean enough for fishing and swimming doubled.
But too many developers, oil and gas companies, and industrial polluters were violating their permits. They filed lawsuits to weaken the Clean Water Act. They prevailed in the Supreme Court in 2001 and again in 2006, creating loopholes that left 20 million acres of wetlands and more than half of America's streams without guaranteed protections under federal law.
The impact of the polluters' court victory was real. One example: ProPublica reported that an oil company dumped thousands of gallons of crude oil into Edwards Creek in Texas, and the federal government couldn't issue a fine, pursue legal action or even require cleanup. In a four-year span, the loophole prevented the U.S. EPA from moving forward with more than 1,500 investigations of companies that spilled oil, toxic chemicals and bacteria into streams, according to an analysis by The New York Times. Wetlands, once on the rebound, begin to disappear once more.
That's why environmental groups, fishing and boating groups, elected officials and more began a decade-long push to restore protections to streams that feed drinking water supplies for one in every three Americans.
The Clean Water Act is on the verge of restoration. In March 2014, the Obama administration proposed a rule to close the Clean Water Act loophole and ensure protections for all of the nation's waterways once and for all.
People rallied in support. Farmers, boaters, fishers, mayors, brewers, clean water groups and all manner of Americans delivered more than 800,000 comments in favor of the restored protections. Scientists weighed in with more than 1,000 studies, verifying that the health of the Chesapeake Bay, the Everglades and the Colorado River depends in part on the streams and wetlands that flow into them.
Now, the Clean Water Rule must get past the polluters who poked holes in the Clean Water Act in the first place: the developers who pave over our wetlands; the oil and gas companies that run thousands of miles of pipelines through our marshes; and the factory farms that dump manure into our streams.
And each of these challengers has allies in Congress who are more determined than ever to block clean water protections. The U.S. House has voted multiple times to overturn the Clean Water Rule, most recently two weeks ago. This summer, the Senate could vote to thwart the rule with a simple majority, setting up a veto battle with the president.
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