“The first river you paddle runs through the rest of your life. It bubbles up in pools and eddies to remind you who you are.” -Lynn Noel 

Don’t turn back the clock

From the Great Lakes to the Colorado River, from Puget Sound to the Chesapeake Bay, America’s rivers, streams, lakes and other waters are where we go to swim, fish, canoe, kayak or just enjoy the scenery. They supply us with clean drinking water.

However, far too often we’re reminded of the bad old days, when polluters used many of America’s waters as their own private sewers:

In January 2014, a 10,000-gallon chemical spill into West Virginia’s Elk River left 300,000 people without water. They couldn’t drink it, bathe in it, shower with it, cook with it, or even wash the dishes with it.

A month later, a Duke Energy pipeline collapsed, spreading more than 39,000 tons of coal ash along 70 miles of North Carolina’s Dan River.

Just six months later, in August 2014, a toxic algae bloom left 400,000 people in and around Toledo, Ohio, without drinking water. The algae contained cyanotoxin—a substance so potent that the military considered “weaponizing” it. Toledo faced problems again last year, when the algae bloom hit again

We’ve worked hard to protect our waters and we’re doing all we can now to keep polluters from turning back the clock to the days when Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it caught on fire. 

Even greater jeopardy

Unfortunately, polluting industries have put our waters in even greater jeopardy. They’ve been pushing to weaken the Clean Water Act ever since it first passed more than 40 years ago. After spending millions of dollars on lobbyists and lawyers, they carved loopholes in the law that left more than half of America’s streams open to pollution.

The loopholes put nearly 2 million miles of our streams at risk, threatening the drinking water of 117 million Americans. They also put at risk 20 million acres of wetlands, an area the size of South Carolina and home to millions of birds and fish. 

As a result of these loopholes, hundreds of polluters were able to escape penalties. 

For example, as Pro Publica reported, “in 2007, when an oil company discharged thousands of gallons of crude oil into Edwards Creek in Titus County, Tex., the EPA did not issue a fine, pursue legal action or even require cleanup.

“Similarly, after a farming operation dumped manure into tributaries that fed Lake Blackshear in Georgia, the EPA did not seek to hold the polluting company responsible—despite the fact that tests showed unsafe levels of bacteria and viruses in the lake, which was regularly used for waterskiing and other recreation. 

In a single 18-month period, Clean Water Act loopholes undermined 500 EPA water pollution cases.

Fortunately, the EPA agreed to act, proposing a new rule that would close the loopholes so the agency could enforce the law and stop the polluters.

"Legal warfare"

However, polluting industries lobbied furiously to stop us. 

Our adversaries included big oil and gas companies, which have thousands of miles of pipelines running through wetlands. They threatened legal warfare against the plan to restore protections to these wetlands. 

Coal companies, which have a history of dumping the wastes from their mining into mountain streams, and stood to benefit if the Clean Water Act failed to protect these streams.

Powerful developers who want to pave over wetlands without restrictions. A Michigan developer named Rapanos filed one of the court cases that created the loopholes. 

Huge factory farms who generate millions of pounds of animal manure each year, some of which runs off into our water. These big agribusinesses and their congressional allies unleashed a smear campaign, designed to scare ordinary farmers into believing the EPA was out to grab their land and even “regulate puddles.” The smears were, of course, completely untrue. 

Winning the biggest step forward for clean water in a decade 

You gave us the resources to advocate in Congress, recruit and mobilize a diverse and powerful coalition, and rally the grassroots to demand action. 

  • Together with our allies, we gathered more than 800,000 comments and held more than half a million face-to-face conversations about the need to close loopholes in the Clean Water Act.
  • With the influential voices of more than 1,000 farmers, business owners and local elected officials behind us, our visibility events and media outreach efforts countered Big Ag’s smear campaign against the rule.
  • With the rule under threat, our national team held meetings with more than 50 congressional offices, urging them to champion the voice of the public and stand up for clean water. 
In 2015, our efforts paid off when President Obama finalized the Clean Water Rule, restoring federal protections to more than half the nation’s streams, which feed drinking water sources for one in three Americans.

 

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy (sitting, right) and U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) Jo Ellen Darcy (sitting, left) signed the Clean Water for America rule on May 27, 2015, with Margie Alt, Environment America executive director (second from left). 

The fight for clean water continues

The Trump administration has called for eliminating this protection, calling it “burdensome” and “unnecessary" 

Is environmental protection “burdensome”? Sure. That’s the idea: to put the burden of responsibility on those who would otherwise pollute our environment.

Is protecting the waters we love and depend upon “unnecessary”? Even smaller streams and wetlands?

Of course not. What happens upstream doesn’t stay upstream. Small streams flow into bigger streams and rivers. Wetlands act as sponges that filter pollutants before they reach waterways.

The bottom line: Clean water isn’t a luxury we can’t afford or an unnecessary burden. It’s the wellspring of a healthy and thriving America.

To most Americans, this is just common sense. But it’s a message our senators need to hear loud and clear  from you.

Clean Water Updates

Report | Environment America Research & Policy Center

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