By Ed Perry
On Sept. 9, every Republican member of Pennsylvania's congressional delegation voted with almost all of their GOP colleagues to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from restoring Clean Water Act protection to all the waters of the United States. What a difference from 1972, when 96 Republicans joined with 151 Democrats to override President Richard Nixon's veto and pass the Clean Water Act.
I spent 30 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an aquatic biologist working in the Clean Water Act regulatory program. My career began just two years after the act was passed. For the next 31 years, the law provided federal protection to all U.S. waters. However, in 2003, the Bush administration changed the regulations, reducing federal protection for headwater streams and adjacent wetlands.
Before 1972, the government only regulated discharges into streams that carried interstate commerce or had in the past. When I was growing up in Cleveland, about a quarter-mile from where the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, Lake Erie was declared dead, and the public was in an uproar because the nation's waters were so polluted.
The public demanded action, and with overwhelming bipartisan support, Congress acted. The rest is history. Despite a considerable amount of development since then, we enjoy some of the highest water quality of any developed nation. We learned that simply regulating pollution discharges into large, traditionally navigable waters was not enough, because most pollution emanates from small headwater streams and is carried downstream into our lakes and drinking water supplies.
The EPA's proposed rule does only one thing: It restores federal protection to waters of the United States that had been in place for 31 years. It is not an expansion of federal jurisdiction; it merely restores what has been taken away by an administration unfriendly to clean-water standards.
Some have asserted that the rule threatens our economy and our way of life. If so, the Clean Water Act failed, because from its enactment in 1972 to its gutting in 2003, our gross domestic product doubled. Clearly, having clean water has benefited every single one of us.
The fact is, if you are not attempting to drain or fill a wetland in order to farm it, this rule does not change anything that had not been in place before 2003. If you have been farming an area or are beginning to farm one, and are not attempting to convert a wetland or a stream to another use, then this rule does not apply.
The main reason for having a single federal standard is to prevent what is called "the race to the bottom." In other words, without a signle nationwide standard, some states would weaken their water-pollution regulations in order to make themselves more attractive to businesses, giving them a competitive advantage. That's what happened before 1972, and it's why our nation's waters were once so polluted.
The Bush administration changes weakened protection and opened more than two million miles of streams and millions of acres of wetlands all across the country for development and new sources of pollution. In Pennsylvania, the EPA estimated that the 2003 rule change eliminated protection of more than 46,000 miles of headwater streams and more than half of Pennsylvania's vegetated wetlands.
These headwater stream systems and adjacent wetlands are the foundation of our nation's fish and wildlife resources, and provide clean drinking water to more than one-third of Americans. So why wouldn't Congress want to restore protection of these resources?