Americans need clean safe water to drink, bathe, run their businesses, keep schools open and function daily. Unfortunately, the waters that feed the drinking water supplies of 1 in 3 Americans could be dirtied by the outcome of legislation regarding the Clean Water Act. As the Senate recently began debating the Clean Water Rule drafted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers, I was surprised by the number and ferocity of the hyperbolic attacks on an initiative designed to protect streams and wetlands that all Americans should have a shared interest in protecting.
In dissecting the concerns behind these attacks, most troubling has been the number of misunderstandings, mischaracterizations and missing logic. What’s worse, many of these malignancies appear to be spread deliberately by lobby groups with no concern for the lives of American families. Not only do they threaten to prevent future compromise, they could undo the progress made during prior eras of bipartisanship that delivered a series of bedrock environmental protections.
The draft Clean Water Rule included a modest set of requirements, which the agencies are now refining to take account of the more than 1 million public comments, 87 percent of which were in support of the rule. The proposal responds directly to Supreme Court decisions and to calls from all sides for new, clear rules to specify what kinds of water bodies deserve the safeguards of the Clean Water Act.
The draft rule relies on more than 1,200 pieces of peer-reviewed scientific literature that evaluate the critical functions that various types of water bodies perform. It restores protections that the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush championed.
The water bodies protected by the draft rule supply drinking water, provide hunting and fishing areas, keep pollution from our swimming holes, and sustain the manufacturing processes of countless American businesses. Because these waters are widespread, they touch all of our lives. Nearly 60 percent of the streams in the continental U.S. do not flow year-round and there are approximately 110 million acres of wetlands in the lower 48 states. Protecting these waters, as the Clean Water Rule would do, will create up to more than a half-billion dollars per year in economic benefits, significantly outweighing the costs the rule would impose.
The draft rule’s opponents say – falsely – that the Clean Water Act never protected smaller waters. Every Supreme Court justice to have considered the law’s scope, however, has acknowledged that its safeguards are not limited to water bodies on which a boat will float.
Opponents also say that the rule would undercut states’ rights, even though the rule preserves states’ primary responsibility for controlling water pollution.
When the Supreme Court last considered the scope of the law, a bipartisan group of more than 30 state attorneys general – including Maryland – submitted a brief asking the Court to uphold federal Clean Water Act protections for small streams and nearby wetlands – the precise water bodies at the center of the Clean Water Rule. They did so for good reason: Our water is too important to be sullied by bogus claims.
Cardin is Maryland’s junior senator, serving since 2007. He is ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, and also sits in the Environment and Public Works; the Finance; and the Small Business and Entrepreneurship committees.