Senate committee passes compromise version of key water protection bill
In a major step toward reversing years of attacks on wetlands and water protections, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee today passed the Clean Water Restoration Act (S.787) by a 12-7 vote.
The bill would clarify the extent of federal protection for all “waters of the United States” as Congress originally intended in passing the Clean Water Act in 1972, which many view as one of the most successful environmental protection laws. Over time, a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions and Bush Administration polices created uncertainty regarding federal protection for some waters, especially headwater streams and so-called “isolated” wetlands.
The impacts of confusing jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act protections has taken an especially heavy toll in the water-rich South, where clean, plentiful water is directly related to the health of the web of tributaries and wetlands that make up much of our watersheds. These smaller waters are considered the “first-responders” to controlling pollution and floods.
Following is a statement from Chris DeScherer:
“The Southern Environmental Law Center welcomes today's action. This bill is critical to protecting drinking water, wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, and any number of community economies in the South. Although SELC and many others have fought hard to protect these waters, I can't tell you how many wetlands or small streams may have been lost forever because of misinterpretation of the Clean Water Act. The passage of this bill won't come a day too soon.”
“SELC applauds Chairman Boxer and Senator Feingold for their leadership on this issue. We're pleased that they were able to work out a compromise with other Senators to move a bill forward that clarifies clean water protections for all waters of the United States. We also thank the Obama Administration for weighing in on the need to pass this type of legislation.”
Several Supreme Court decisions (SWANCC in 2001 and Rapanos in 2006) and subsequent directives from the EPA and Corps of Engineers have confused which waters are protected and which are not. The court and agencies, hinging their rationale on the term “navigable,” have muddied the scope of protections for so-called “isolated” wetlands and headwater (ephemeral or intermittent) streams.
Whereas virtually all U.S. waters were once protected, the current approach is to make determinations on a case-by-case basis, which creates uncertainty for all interests, including developers and others in the regulated community as each Corps district is applying its own criteria for determining what waters are and aren't covered. Moreover, regulating the nation's water resources in this piecemeal fashion disregards the interconnectedness of our watersheds upon which clean, healthy water relies.
The Clean Water Restoration Act would re-confirm protection for all waters of the U.S., while still maintaining certain exemptions for agriculture and timber harvesting important to those industries.