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.
- The 2015 Clean Water Rule extends the Clean Water Act’s protections to tributaries, headwaters and wetlands that are vital to maintain the health of larger downstream waterbodies.
- Any potential modifications to the Clean Water Rule must be grounded in science and include protections for headwaters.
- As it stands, the 2015 Clean Water Rule provides clarity to both the agencies and industry with exemptions for MT’s farmers and ranchers.
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.
A Fully Funded EPA – Superfund
Since 1985, the Clark Fork Coalition has strived to protect and restore the Clark Fork River Basin. Much of this work has focused on healing the damage caused by a century of mining activity in the headwaters of the Clark Fork Basin.
The Upper Clark Fork stretches 140 miles from Butte to Missoula and is heavily polluted by mine wastes that washed down Silver Bow Creek and the Clark Fork River from Butte and Anaconda. The contamination impacted drinking water wells, agricultural soils, and aquatic life throughout this stretch of river corridor.
Fortunately, Superfund designation allowed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to work jointly with state and local partners to begin remediating this pollution and restoring the Upper Clark Fork to its full potential. After years of stagnation, life has begun to return to the river and the adjoining riparian area. Without the resources of the EPA and the Superfund program, there is no doubt that the hardworking Clark Fork River and its neighboring communities would be much worse off than they are today.
With this history in mind, it’s essential that there is full funding of the EPA and its programs. The Trump administration has called for a 31 percent reduction in EPA’s budget, including hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed cuts to the Superfund program’s enforcement and remediation divisions. These proposed cuts would drastically undermine the progress seen in the Clark Fork Basin.
The proposed cuts would erode an already threatened EPA budget that is currently at its lowest level in nearly 40 years. The cuts would also shift the cleanup burden to the Montana state agencies and local communities. The fact is, neither Montana nor its local communities have the necessary resources to address its biggest environmental disasters.
Montanans rely on an adequately funded EPA to provide the expertise, resources, and leadership necessary to get the job done.
The Upper Clark Fork cleanup is just one example of the important role the EPA plays in Montana. Currently there are 17 active Superfund sites, with another (the former Smurfit-Stone Paper Mill) proposed for the National Priorities List in Missoula’s backyard.
The administration’s enormous proposed cuts are trumpeted as a “back-to-basics” strategy designed to return the EPA to its core responsibilities, cut red tape, and encourage economic growth. This backward reasoning ignores the underlying purpose of the Superfund Program, which is to remediate, restore and redevelop. The latter cannot be accomplished without the former.
The bottom line is this: the EPA cannot accomplish more, or even maintain the status quo, with less money. Deep funding cuts will mean slower, longer cleanups, that leave people and waterways exposed to contamination, and cause more economic harm to already suffering communities. A fully funded EPA is vital to Montana.