We need to improve Clean Water Act, not abandon it

Jul. 31, 2014 @ 05:19 PM

I am writing today in support of the new rules proposed to strengthen the Clean Water Act (CWA).  This is not the first time I have voiced my support for the CWA.  The first time I did, I got a number of responses that can be summarized simply as:  "The CWA is nothing but a government power grab."  I must add that my summary , while accurate, lacks the colorful and hateful rhetoric that made the responses so surprising to me.­

These responses surprised me because I thought the history of the CWA was still fresh in people's minds.  But I guess not.  Let me highlight some events that led President Nixon to sign the CWA into law:  In 1968, the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries measured DDT levels in 584 of 590 samples from the Chesapeake Bay at nine times the FDA limit.  In 1969, bacteria levels in the Hudson River were 170 times the safe limit and there were several fish kills across the nation including 26 million fish that died in Lake Thonotosassa in Florida.  That same year the Cuyahoga River in Ohio burst into flames because it was so contaminated with oil slicks (the 13th time it erupted in flames in the previous 50 or so years).  Time magazine wrote that the river " oozes rather than flows"  and that in it a person "does not drown but decays."  And in 1970 the U.S. Department of Health reported that 30 percent of drinking water samples had chemicals unfit for human consumption.

Amazingly, since the CWA was passed, not one river has caught fire.  But keeping our rivers from bursting into flame is not a really hard goal to meet, and shouldn't be our best effort.  Steady progress cleaning up water was made until 2001 when the Supreme Court decided a case called "Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County Vs. Army Corps of Engineers."  The court decided that the CWA was being applied too broadly, and ruled that the law cannot be used to protect isolated wetlands.  The Supreme Court ruling has resulted in the wholesale destruction of "isolated wetlands," which has caused our waters to steadily become more polluted and support less wildlife.  These new rules would return some CWA authority to isolated wetlands in ways that define and limit what is a wetland, and what can be done to protect it in compliance with the Supreme Court ruling.

Every single conservation group I know of has gotten behind these new rules.  In fact, the list of conservation groups in North Carolina that signed a letter in support of the new rules numbers 60, representing many thousands of voices.  We have over 240,000 miles of streams and rivers in this state, all fed by headwaters that are made up of isolated wetlands.  If these wetlands are not protected, our rivers are not protected.  And thus our drinking water is not protected.  Everything is connected.

Industry talking heads would have you believe that clean water will kill the economy, and that the economy is more important to your life than clean water.  This is crazy talk.  A very sane thinker, philosopher, and naturalist named Aldo Leopold wrote a slim book called “A Sand County Almanac” back in the 1940s. In it, he said: “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

The Clean Water Act is not a "government power grab" as some short-sighted folks would have you believe.  It is the only way we, as a society, have of limiting our impact on the land and water.  Is it perfect?  I am sure not.  But it is the only tool we have to protect and enhance our aquatic environment.  We need to use it, and improve it.  Not abandon it.  And we need to hold our politicians accountable to enforce it.  When companies like Duke Energy get to dump coal ash in our rivers without consequence, it is not the fault of the Clean Water Act.  It is the fault of our politicians, and their constituents who fail to keep them in line.

I encourage you to go to the EPA website and make a comment in favor of the proposed rules for the Clean Water Act: http://www.regulations.gov/#!submitComment;D=EPA-HQ-OW-2011-0880-0001.

Steve Graf is a subsistence farmer, traditional bowhunter and retired NASA engineer who lives in Cedar Grove.