On October 18, the Clean Water Act turns 42. When Congress passed the Act in 1972, it set a national goal to make all of our waters fishable and set a national policy that prohibits the dumping of toxic pollution into our waters.
If, like me, you were born after 1972, you’ve never lived in a world where America wasn’t committed to these noble ends. So it can be easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that our rivers were so polluted they caught on fire and we were losing up to a half million acres of wetlands each year.
Despite its successes, for the last third of its lifetime, the Clean Water Act has had an identity crisis. That’s because two Supreme Court cases in 2001 and 2006 and subsequent federal agency actions left us without a clear understanding of which bodies of water the Act protects.
It’s not clear, for example, whether headwater trout streams and salmon spawning grounds fall under the Clean Water Act. These types of waters make up 60 percent of the stream miles in America and contribute to the drinking water of 117 million Americans – that’s one out of every three of us.
It’s also not clear whether waterfowl habitat like that in the Prairie Pothole region of the upper Midwest makes the cut. These waters are the nesting grounds for the majority of waterfowl in North America.
This confusion has reversed some of the remarkable gains our nation has enjoyed as a result of the Act. Of particular importance for sportsmen is a stunning 140 percent increase in the rate of wetlands loss, which translates to the destruction of critical waterfowl habitat and decreased hunting opportunities – an impact that grows with each passing year.
Earlier this year the federal government started a public rulemaking to resolve the problem. This should not have been a controversial step. Stakeholders of all stripes – not to mention the Supreme Court – asked for just such a rulemaking.
Unfortunately, before the ink on the proposal was even dry, critics began spouting hyperbolic misinformation designed to undermine the very rulemaking that they had asked for. This criticism culminated in a bill supported by 262 congressmen that would kill the rulemaking. These congressmen have effectively buried their heads in the sand and agreed to perpetuate the confusion that hinders effective use of the Clean Water Act.
Everyone acknowledges there’s a problem with Clean Water Act jurisdiction. Instead of reflexively and obstinately standing in opposition, let’s use this once in a generation opportunity to come up with a solution. Hunters and anglers have engaged in the process from the beginning and universally stood on the side of problem solving.
A suitable Clean Water Act anniversary present would be for all of us to recommit to completing the process to clarify the Act, improving the proposed rule and finalizing a rule that provides clarity and certainty to the regulated community while conserving fish and wildlife and sustaining America’s outdoor traditions.