The Public Wants EPA – Not Congress – to Protect Our Drinking Water
by Amanda Starbuck, 5/21/2015
UPDATE (May 28, 2015): Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the Clean Water Rule, closing loopholes that historically allowed polluters to dump waste into the streams and wetlands that feed our drinking water supply. One in three Americans’ drinking water comes from these sources, and so EPA’s rule is a win for public and environmental health. Among other provisions, the rule grants protection under the Clean Water Act to streams, wetlands, and rain-dependent waters that connect to navigable waters.
A nationwide poll by Hart Research Associates found that Americans overwhelmingly support the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Water Rule. The rule will clarify what waters EPA can protect under the Clean Water Act.
For over 40 years, EPA has protected our surface waters from industrial pollution through the Clean Water Act.
Before the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, industrial plants had few regulations preventing them from dumping toxics and wastes into rivers and streams. When the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, it brought national attention to the issue of water pollution. With broad bipartisan support, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, giving EPA the authority to set water quality standards and to require permits for discharges into navigable waters.
However, industry has repeatedly challenged EPA’s authority in court. In 2006, a lawsuit by Michigan land developers questioning EPA’s authority to protect wetlands was heard by the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that EPA does not have jurisdiction over wetlands unless they have a “significant nexus” (i.e., connection) to streams or rivers that the EPA is tasked to protect. However, the Court failed to elaborate on what constitutes a significant nexus, leading to greater confusion over EPA’s jurisdiction of wetlands, streams, and other seasonal bodies of water.
In an attempt to clear up the confusion, in July of 2013 EPA began the process of establishing a rule that would clearly define the waters the agency has authority to protect. Specifically, the rule will clarify that wetlands near streams and rivers, as well as seasonal and rainwater dependent streams, fall under the agency’s authority to protect. The rule will also clarify that EPA can conduct case-specific analyses of waters that have a connection to downstream sources if the connection is not readily apparent. By protecting small, seasonal bodies of water, EPA can prevent contamination of larger rivers and streams that provide drinking water to millions of Americans.
The final rule is expected this spring and is already facing significant opposition by companies that dump in streams and wetlands. Opponents are spreading misleading information about the rule, claiming it is a massive land grab that greatly expands EPA’s authority. Others fear that it will place unnecessary burdens on farmers and businesses. In reality, the rule does not expand EPA’s existing authority or its permitting process; instead, it clarifies that the Clean Water Act intended for EPA to have authority over any surface water sources that could contaminate the nation’s navigable waters. Republicans in Congress are gearing up to block the rule.
American voters believe that our government can and should do more to protect our water – 80 percent of voters support the Clean Water Rule.
This support cuts across party lines, with 94 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans favoring the rule, according to the Hart Research Associates poll (funded by the League of Conservation Voters). A majority of voters continue to support the rule after being presented with core conservative arguments against it.
Voters also say they have more faith in EPA than Congress when it comes to protecting our waterways. Seventy-seven percent expressed trust in EPA to take the right approach over Congress, compared to only 9 percent saying they would trust Congress over EPA. The majority of voters (79 percent) believe Congress should allow the rule to go forward. Ninety-four percent of Democrats and 66 percent of Republicans do not want Congress to block this rule.
Finally, seven in ten voters (69 percent) would feel less favorable towards their senator if s/he voted to block the rule. This includes 81 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans.
Clean water is a critically important issue. Roughly one third of Americans drink and use water from sources that are not clearly protected right now. EPA’s Clean Water Rule will better define what waters are protected, in order to ensure the Clean Water Act can keep our water supplies safe.
Since the President is likely to veto any attempt by lawmakers to undermine water protections, the effort to legislatively block strong enforcement of a long-standing and popular law appears to be nothing more than a symbolic gesture aimed at a tiny set of self-interested opponents. Given that this action is unpopular with a majority of Republican voters as well as Democratic voters, it seems a colossal waste of Congressional time and resources