I just finished a sportsmen’s D.C. fly-in, and, boy, are my arms tired (ba-dum-chhh).
But seriously, folks.
More than a dozen sportsmen just wrapped up three days in Washington, D.C., last week talking to their elected officials about the importance of clean water to hunting and fishing. It was just in time, too. There’s a disturbing trend in Congress of members ignoring the views of sportsmen who rely on clean water to enjoy quality days in the field. For instance, on July 16, 2014, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved three pieces of legislation that undermine our bedrock water quality safeguards. TRCP partner Trout Unlimited rightly took them to task:
“Forty years ago the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee played a leadership role in enacting one of the nation’s most vital natural resource conservation laws, the Clean Water Act,” said Steve Moyer, Trout Unlimited’s vice president of government affairs. “Today, the Committee hammered the law with some of the most ill-conceived attacks in the history of the act.”
One of the bills would derail a Clean Water Act rulemaking that will clarify protections for headwater streams and wetlands and better define which waters are covered by the Clean Water Act and – just as importantly – which ones are not.
Sportsmen in D.C. last week told lawmakers from several states that this rulemaking is the best chance in a generation to definitively restore some protections to valuable fisheries and waterfowl habitats – protections that existed for nearly 30 years prior to 2001 – and Congress should not interfere with the process.
“Protecting America’s waters is important to anglers all across this country,” said Bob Rees, executive director, Association of Northwest Steelheaders, one of the fly-in participants. “Whether you fish for trout in North Carolina, bass in Missouri or salmon in Oregon, this is an issue that directly impacts us all.”
Signed into law in 1972, the Clean Water Act is one of our most successful environmental statutes. It has transformed rivers that once literally caught on fire into productive fisheries and vibrant aquatic ecosystems. And it slowed a rate of wetland loss that, in 1972, exceeded a half-million acres per year.
What’s been unclear at least since 2001 is to which waters the law applies. In 2001 and again in 2006 the Supreme Court issued decisions concerning Clean Water Act jurisdiction that, combined with subsequent agency guidance, actually confused the issue. What we’re left with is an administrative mess slowing down permit applications and water bodies at increased risk of pollution and destruction. The rate of wetlands loss – one of the great metrics of the success of the Clean Water Act – actually increased by 140 percent during the years immediately following the Supreme Court decisions. This is the first documented acceleration of wetland loss in the history of the Clean Water Act.
Since the Supreme Court decisions, a broad cross section of stakeholders has called for a rulemaking to clarify where the Clean Water Act applies. Many sportsmen’s groups have been asking for a rulemaking for years. So have state agencies, local elected officials, industry associations and farming and ranching groups, as well as Supreme Court justices.
After nearly 15 years of confusion, the agencies responsible finally obliged. On March 25, 2014, a proposed draft rule was published that is open for public comment through mid-October.
“Approximately two-thirds of the 13 million Pennsylvanians get drinking water from headwater streams that would benefit from this proposal,” said Jeff Ripple, chairman of the Environmental Committee for Pennsylvania Trout Unlimited and another fly-in participant. “This is not just about fishing; the status quo is putting the economy and our way of life at risk for the benefit of a few.”
Since the draft was published, we have heard a lot from groups opposing the proposed rule and congressmen intent on derailing the rulemaking even while it is still in the public comment phase. What’s been getting short shrift in this debate are the potential benefits of a rulemaking for America’s 47 million hunters and anglers. Sportsmen, who generate $200 billion in total economic activity each year and support 1.5 million jobs, rely on clean water to pursue their sporting traditions.
To be clear, the rulemaking must be done in a way that works for our partners in agriculture. We rely on them in many of our conservation efforts and for access to places to hunt and fish.
But efforts to stop the rulemaking before the public has had a chance to review and comment on the proposal are misguided and ignore the wishes of sportsmen. Now is not the time to throw the proposed rule away and lock in the current jurisdictional confusion indefinitely. It is time to improve it through broad public involvement.