Can President Obama Save the Environment?

12/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Bush has left a regulatory wasteland in his wake these last eight years, and it won't be easy for President Obama to undo all of the Bush rollbacks and fulfill the original intent of many of our nation's environmental laws.

Waterkeeper Alliance's new report, the U.S. Blueprint for Clean Water, offers remedies to these concerns and proposes a new agenda to strengthen U.S. environmental protection in all areas relating to water. Unique in its scope and depth, the Blueprint was created with input from activists and experts from more than 100 communities - men and women who work not only for clean water but who work on the rivers, lakes and coastal waters of this nation and many others. For those less inclined to wade through the technical details, a shorter version of the Blueprint's top ten priorities is also available in the latest issue of Waterkeeper magazine.

To help save our environment, President Obama should immediately issue Executive Orders to undo many of Bush's environmental regulations that have just been approved or come into effect. Where President Obama is unable, Congress itself must take decisive legislative action to protect the integrity of our environmental laws by reversing Bush's recent rollbacks. Where even that doesn't work, Congress should suspend funding for the implementation of those regulations which clearly undermine existing legislative mandates.

Beyond these immediate actions, it will take years to undo the environmental damage done by the Bush Administration. Here are some other keys steps that President Obama must take if he is to succeed in this vitally important area.

First, he must make strong environmental appointments. His new EPA Administrator, Secretary of Interior and Secretary of Energy will need not just the charisma to inspire change, but the backbone and know-how to enforce a program for achieving it. Instead of appointing life-long bureaucrats, who are more likely to tinker with rather than rethink current approaches to environmental policy, President Obama must reach out to those who've been on the frontlines of mobilizing change and inspiring grassroots involvement.

Second, President Obama should elevate the environment within his administration. He should create an environment and energy taskforce as part of the Executive Office, and he should consider making EPA a Cabinet-level agency. Long overdue (and widely presumed by many in the public and the media who mistakenly think EPA already is a cabinet department), this simple, sensible step will boost morale at a woefully demoralized agency. Just as important, it will signal the Obama Administration's determination to make environmental protection the priority it must be if we are to meet the immense challenges we face.

Next, leadership must quickly translate into decisive, determined action. Pulling us back from the precipice means that President Obama and his appointees must move immediately to strengthen federal environmental regulations and re-invigorate environmental stewardship. Global warming and energy issues are obvious priorities - and no doubt will be center stage under the new administration. Still, in terms of environmental initiatives that need attention, they're the beginning not an end.

President Obama must do all he can to reverse hundreds of regulatory rollbacks of the last eight years and revamp enforcement at EPA. Among other things, this will require comprehensive improvement to the many problems that have degraded the health of America's rivers, lakes and coastlines - a full 40 percent of which still do not meet the goals set by the Clean Water Act more than 35 years ago. It means stopping sewage spills in cities such as Milwaukee and protecting places like Puget Sound from toxic stormwater runoff. It means protecting North Carolina's air and water from mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants, and the streams and woodlands of Appalachia from mountaintop mining and valley fills. It means defending Florida and Georgia river systems from excessive water withdrawals by overly thirsty urban centers and safeguarding Indiana rivers, the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay from farm runoff that has already resulted in massive aquatic dead zones. And it means protecting tribes in Oklahoma and elsewhere from bearing a disproportionate brunt of environmental insults.

Make no mistake: the litany of what must be done is long and daunting. But more than that, it is urgent. Where administrative action is not enough, the new Congress must step up and pass new legislation and support investment in our environment. In the case of America's wetlands and intermittent streams, whose continued existence has been thrown into doubt by recent Supreme Court rulings, Congress must restore Clean Water Act protection to these vital resources. Congress must also rejuvenate coastal fisheries with strong new legislation. And it must support serious investment in energy and wastewater infrastructure - which will bring improvement to the economy and the environment at the same time.

Finally, no matter what President Obama and the new Congress are able to do, we know from long experience the ripple effect that hard work and determination at the local level can have. As citizens, voters and consumers, we must be vigilant and involved - so that no matter who is in the White House (Republicans or Democrats), the federal government can never again wage war on our environment and eviscerate our environmental laws the way George W. Bush has.