Last week, toxins from an enormous algae bloom in Lake Erie contaminated the drinking water of nearly 500,000 people in the Toledo area. In February, 39,000 tons of coal ash leached into the Dan River in North Carolina, threatening residents there. Less than a month earlier, 300,000 West Virginians spent five days without access to safe water after a chemical spill poisoned the Elk River.
2014 has been a year of water-related disasters, forcing us to think about the resources most of us take for granted every day. Our waterways are critically important to our health and our way of life, and it’s clear we have to do more, not less, to protect the rivers, lakes and bays we love and depend on.
Fortunately, we have a law designed to protect our waterways: the Clean Water Act. It’s our nation’s bedrock clean water law, providing the tools for states and the federal government to work together to ensure that our waters – from Long Island Sound and the Colorado River to Puget Sound – are clean and protected.
Since its passage in 1972, we’ve made great progress. The number of swimmable and fishable waterways across the country has nearly doubled. Rivers don’t just catch fire like the Cuyahoga did in 1969. Indeed, the very fact that the toxins in Lake Erie last week were such big news is a testament to the law’s success – in the late 1960s, Time magazine matter-of-factly described Lake Erie as “dead.”
Because of the Clean Water Act, we have come to expect better than this. No one should have to worry about the safety of his or her water. But recent court challenges have put the Clean Water Act in jeopardy, leaving many of our waterways at risk.
Since the Clean Water Act passed, polluters have been attacking it at every turn. This includes John Rapanos, a Michigan developer who wanted to pave over wetlands to build a strip mall. Warned repeatedly that doing so would violate the Clean Water Act, he went ahead anyway, spoiling the wetlands and starting a legal battle that would last nearly two decades.
In the end, the case went to the Supreme Court, which called into question what waterways the Clean Water Act actually protects. Now this confusion leaves more than 2 million miles of streams across the country, 20 million acres of wetlands and the drinking water for 117 million Americans at risk of unchecked pollution and development.
It’s common sense that in order to protect America’s treasured rivers, lakes and bays, we have to protect the smaller waterways that flow into them. It’s crazy to think that the law that protected our waterways for decades now wouldn’t apply to the streams in our backyards. That’s why Environment America and other environmental, conservation, hunting and fishing groups, and hundreds of thousands of Americans urged the Obama administration to close these loopholes and restore Clean Water Act protections to waterways across the country.
Fortunately, the administration heard the tremendous public support for clean water and on March 25 proposed a rule to fix the Clean Water Act. This rule would be the biggest step forward for clean water in more than a decade, ensuring that the Clean Water Act can once again protect the drinking water for all Americans.
Unsurprisingly, the country’s biggest polluters are waging war to stop this rulemaking, calling it “the biggest landgrab in the history of the world.” They’ve formed the Waters Advocacy Coalition to fight the rule, a front-group that the New York Times calls “a lobbying outfit for some of the nation’s largest industrial and agricultural concerns,” from the American Petroleum Institute to the American Farm Bureau. They’re lining up their allies in Congress to hold a witch hunt targeting the Clean Water Act, holding hearing after hearing attacking the administration for protecting our waterways.
To protect our rivers, lakes, and bays; we need to remind the Obama administration and every elected official of the public’s fundamental support for clean water. We’re teaming up with local, state and national environmental groups, hook and bullet organizations, sustainable farmers, small business owners, and hundreds of thousands of everyday people to support the clean water rule.
The Environmental Protection Agency is taking public comments on the proposal until October 20. To help make sure the Clean Water Act protects the waterways we love for future generations, you can submit a public comment today.
Rachel’s Network Leadership Liaison Margie Alt is the Executive Director of Environment America, a federation of state-based, citizen-funded environmental advocacy organizations. Under Margie’s direction, the Environment America federation has grown to include 29 state-based groups, more than 100 professional staff, and more than 1 million members, donors, activists, and allies in all 50 states.