The Clean Water Act, which turned 42 on Saturday, is the most successful tool our country has to protect our water. In the past four decades, it has been responsible for reducing pollution, making our drinking water safer. It has increased hunting and fishing opportunities, and provided an economic boost to a myriad of industries, including outdoor recreation, beer brewing and many more.
Yet, for the last third of its lifetime, the effectiveness of the act has been in decline because we no longer have a clear understanding of its scope. This lack of clarity came about as a result of two Supreme Court rulings, in 2001 and 2006, that created uncertainty about which bodies of water were to be protected under the Clean Water Act, ultimately leaving a large part of the nation’s drinking water supply at increased risk of pollution and destruction.
In the years immediately following the Supreme Court decisions, this confusion reversed some of the remarkable gains our nation has enjoyed as a result of the act. One stark example of this is wetland deterioration: between 2004 and 2009, there was a 140 percent increase in the rate of wetlands loss, which translates to the destruction of critical waterfowl habitat and decreased hunting opportunities.
Earlier this year the federal government began a public process to resolve this problem by proposing a new rule to clarify the Clean Water Act. The proposed rule has the potential to definitively restore protections to headwater streams and wetlands while maintaining our longstanding commitment to agricultural producers.
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In addition to improving the safety of drinking water sources for 1 in 3 Americans, the proposed rule can provide clean water for trout streams, salmon spawning grounds, duck habitat and other waterfowl breeding grounds. This is good news for America’s sportsmen, who fuel a $200 billion sporting economy that supports 1.5 million jobs each year. Simply put, clean water means good hunting and fishing.
Although the public comment period on the proposed rule doesn’t close until Nov. 14, critics bent on blocking the rule are stoking fears about the proposal by spreading hyperbolic misinformation. Many of these critics are the same groups that have been asking for just such a public process for years. Protecting our waters shouldn’t be a political issue – it should be common sense.
Sportsmen are supporting this rulemaking because it can improve hunting and fishing access and increase the number of quality days in the field. Once finalized, the proposed rule can help us sustain these traditions and the associated economic benefits for generations to come.
A suitable anniversary present for the Clean Water Act would be for the White House to move swiftly to finalize the rule, and for all of us to recommit to completing the process, improving the clean water rule so that it provides clarity and certainty to the regulated community while conserving fish and wildlife. The health of our economy and longevity of America’s outdoor traditions depend on it.
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Jimmy Hague is the director of the Center for Water Resources at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Jan Goldman-Carter is the senior manager of Wetlands and Water Resources at the National Wildlife Federation.
©2014 Jimmy Hague and Jan Goldman-Carter