The Clean Water Rule
Since 1972 the landmark Clean Water Act (CWA) has protected clean water resources and dramatically improved water quality in communities across the country, protecting them from pollution and toxic dumping. Now this bedrock environmental law is threatened as never before, with proposed debilitating budget cuts and threats to delegitimize the CWA itself.
The most recent attack on clean water protections is the Trump administration’s proposal to repeal the Clean Water Rule (CWR) – a set of regulations established in 2015 that clarifies the CWA’s protection of headwater streams, wetlands, and drinking water sources. These rules were established after years of research and public outreach, and enjoyed broad support from the public and other stakeholders when passed.
Clean Water Rule talking points:
- Clean water is essential for healthy ecosystems and supports MT’s two largest economic sectors, agriculture and tourism. And outdoor recreation – much of it centered on rivers and streams – now supports a larger portion of our state’s economy than the mining, oil and gas industries combined.
- The 2015 Clean Water Rule (CWR) extends the Clean Water Act’s protections to tributaries, headwaters and wetlands that are vital to maintain the health of larger downstream waterbodies.
- The CWR protects water bodies that supply one third of Montana’s drinking water – especially rural communities in central and eastern Montana. These waters are not protected by the CWR’s parent law, the Clean Water Act. Without CWR, they are at risk.
- As a “headwaters” state with a history of degraded waterways, Montana needs more protections for our rivers, lakes, wetlands, and groundwater, not fewer
More about the Clean Water Rule:
The Clean Water Rule was passed in 2015 to clarify unresolved questions about which water resources in the United States are subject to the requirements of the Clean Water Act and fall under EPA’s jurisdiction.
Years of scientific study, agency review, and public input went into the creation of the Rule. Outreach included 400+ meetings with states, small businesses, farmers, academics, miners, energy companies, counties, municipalities, environmental organizations, federal agencies, and others. The EPA received more than 1 million public comments on the rule, the vast majority of which (87%) supported it.
In the end, the Rule was built around recognition of:
- the key role headwaters and tributary streams play in maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of downstream waters;
- the fundamental importance of wetlands and open waters to protecting clean water and maintaining the ecological integrity of our watersheds;
- the vital importance of clean water to a strong and healthy economy
As such, the CWR includes strong protections for headwaters and tributary streams. In fact, the Rule protects 60% of the streams in the United States, along with 20 million acres of vitally important wetlands. In fact, one in three Americans get their drinking water from sources that the original Clean Water Act did not protect, but which did receive protections under the CWR.
The Rule also recognizes the water use needs of agricultural producers, and includes a number of exclusions/exemptions that protect ranchers and eliminates confusion for landowners, municipalities, and small businesses.
Still, many misperceptions persist about the CWR and are cited in current attempts to repeal it. Popular myths are that it regulates ditches and puddles, constitutes an EPA land grab, regulates where livestock are allowed to walk, and triggers excessive lawsuits. We tackle each of these myths below:
Myth v. Reality
Rules don’t solve every problem. But the Clean Water Rule, as a clarification of Clean Water Act jurisdiction, provides critically important protections for some of our most important water resources. It protects people, communities, and fish and wildlife from pollution, and prevents toxic dumping in some of our most vulnerable creeks and streams.
We can’t risk contaminating our most precious natural resource. And as threats to our waterways continue to grow, we need rock-solid protections in place to ensure that the springs, headwater streams, wetlands, and tributaries that help define western Montana are clean, safe, and secure for the long term.
What’s at risk in western Montana?
The Clean Water Rule helps protect innumerable creeks, streams, and tributaries in western Montana that had been in limbo, or were not protected at all, under the Clean Water Act.
This is because protections for so-called “intermittent reaches,” or portions of streams that do not flow year-round, were unclear under the CWA. The 2015 Clean Water Rule helped clarify where the Clean Water Act applies.
Biologists have long known that intermittent stream reaches are critical for native fish species – providing spawning habitat, migration corridors, and protection from predators as well as dangerously warm stream temperatures.
In western Montana, such streams include familiar waterways used by countless anglers, hunters, and others, including: Petty Creek, Fish Creek, Trout Creek, Monture Creek, Dunham Creek, North Fork of the Blackfoot River, Dry Cottonwood Creek (one of our “Eight Gr8 streams” in the Upper Clark Fork), and many others.
The “Dirty Water” Rider
As the federal budget debate in Washington DC continues, there is a dangerous piece of legislation that is working its way through Congress. This legislation is buried deep in a convoluted omnibus spending bill that is meant to fund the government through the end of FY 2018. The aptly termed “dirty water rider” would give federal agencies the power to repeal clean water legislation without following longstanding laws that guide the rulemaking process.
The dirty details:
- Read the original (highly undemocratic) language in the bill at this link (page 150).
- Key excerpt (emphasis added):
- “The Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Secretary of the Army may withdraw the Waters of the United States rule without regard to any provision of statute or regulation that establishes a requirement for such withdrawal.”
- That “Waters of the United States” rule? The one they want to be able to withdraw at will?
- It was crafted after YEARS of public input from a wide diversity of stakeholders.
- It was created with the input of people like you (and quite possibly including you!)
- This legislation gives government agencies permission to ignore your input and scuttle years of sound science; hard-won compromise among citizens, industry, and other stakeholders; guidance that agricultural producers have requested for decades; and a critically-important set of rules to protect drinking water and other water resources.