The Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency signed a final rule last week that clearly defines what is considered “Waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act of 1972. The rule was first proposed last spring and since then the EPA has held more than 400 public meetings and collected more than one million public comments before releasing the final language of the rule. The intent of the rule is to more clearly define what is considered to be jurisdictional waters of the United States that are regulated by the Clean Water Act and to ‘ensure protection for the nation’s public health and aquatic resources, and increase the CWA program predictability and consistency’. The final rule is available for download from the EPA here.
The rule has been predictably eviscerated by lobbyists supporting farmers, property developers, fertilizer and pesticide makers, oil and gas producers and golf course owners. Speaker John Boehner was immediately quoted saying that the rule is “a raw and tyrannical power grab that will crush jobs”. Congressman Vitter from Louisiana went a step further and drafted a letter to the EPA accusing the EPA of colluding with environmental groups. We’re well on our way to continuing political gridlock while the health of our streams, rivers, lakes and the communities that they serve suffer the consequences of inaction.
Why is it important to protect our streams, rivers and lakes? Why is the Clean Water Act such a political fire bomb? I’ll attempt to answer both questions by reviewing the history of the Clean Water Act, and then sharing a few personal stories and my professional opinions.
Let’s get started with some facts about the Clean Water Act and the new rule. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 in response to nearly unchecked dumping of pollutants into our nation’s streams, rivers, lakes and oceans. In June of 1969, a floating oil slick on the Cuyahoga river in Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire and damaged two key railroad trestles. This incident was attributed to discharge of highly volatile petroleum derivatives into the river. More than 30 percent of drinking water samples had concentrations of pollutants exceeding the recommended public health service limits in 1970. These are just two high profile incidents that sparked action to protect our waterways by regulating both point and non-point sources of pollution discharges. A point discharge is a clearly identifiable discharge such as the effluent from a wastewater treatment plant and a non-point discharge is mostly attributed to stormwater runoff and overflow of untreated wastewater into water bodies. The law set goals for zero discharge of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985 and fishable and swimmable waters by 1983. The first impact of the law was a rapid advancement in wastewater treatment technologies that vastly improved the quality of water discharged from wastewater treatment plants into our streams and rivers. The intended next impact was to improve the quality of stormwater runoff and reduction of combined sewer overflows.
Forty-three years after the regulation began more than 40% of the rivers, 45% of the lakes and 51% of the estuaries monitored in the United States are contaminated. More than 1,200 square miles of creeks, rivers and lakes here in North Texas are classified as impaired out of 1,400 square miles that are monitored. Another 7,000 square miles are not monitored but are clearly being impacted by poor development practices.
I was lucky to grow up in a lakeside home in Greensboro, NC. The lake was just big enough for boating, water skiing and fishing. Most people who knew me described me as a fish out of water when I wasn’t on the lake. Before the Clean Water Act started taking hold in the mid-1980’s unchecked and poorly planned development in Greensboro was booming around our secluded neighborhood. Nutrients from heavily fertilized landscapes and seepage from unregulated septic systems flowed freely into Lynwood Lake and the impacts were immediate. The nutrients supported explosive growth of algae that made the lake nearly impossible to navigate by boat and disgusting to swim in. The bacteria loading made it unsafe to be in contact with and the dead fish floating around made the air smell like a toilet. No one wanted to be there but it was my home and I could just look at the water and wish that I could be in it. It took about 3 years to clean the lake up and it was done by implementation of appropriate stormwater management controls and abandonment of septic systems. We also paid to have the lake stocked with gigantic carp to eat all of the algae. Poor water quality nearly destroyed my neighborhood. It happened because development neglected the streams that fed into the lake by destroying riparian corridors to maximize the developable land. Much of what was developed haphazardly is now failing shopping centers, strip malls and subdivisions that no one wants to live in. The unregulated development provided a quick hit of economic stimulus and now it’s become a tax drain on the community.
Fast forward to last Wednesday in Dallas, Texas. I stood on the new Continental Bridge Park next to the $182 million dollar Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge watching the flood waters of the Trinity River pass underneath me. It didn’t look like a healthy river. It looked like a constricted river that’s suffered the consequences of poor development practices for decades. It looked like chocolate milk mixed with garbage.
We’ve spent nearly half a billion dollars to draw economic development to the Trinity River and we’ve done nothing to protect the water. One would think that we would learn from our mistakes in the past but we haven’t. We continue to build with reckless abandon. We constrict the streams that flow into the Trinity behind fence lines to maximize the lot counts. Then we pave the streams downstream of those developments to push the contaminated water to the Trinity faster and reduce flood damage. We dump our garbage and our fertilizers for a green lawn into the reservoirs that supply us with drinking water. And now we fight against regulations that are intended to stop the vicious cycle because lobbyists claim it will kill jobs and destroy the economy. We’ve been doing that for decades by allowing our streams, rivers and lakes to be impacted by poor development practices. The truth is that these natural resources build communities and drive economic development, but it takes planning some level of oversight to protect the water quality so that people want to be near the water, not run from it.
The new rule added to the Clean Water Act is not a move to cripple our economy. It’s a move to hopefully start conversations that help us form public-private partnerships that develop and redevelop communities that will perform better than what is on the ground now while embracing the natural areas that we all want to be around. It needs to be a collaborative effort and my hope is that I can make this happen for the sake of our invaluable open spaces.