By Morgan Rogers
More than half of Maine’s streams will regain federal protections under a final rule signed today by top Obama administration officials. The measure restores Clean Water Act safeguards to small streams and headwaters that have been vulnerable to development and pollution for nearly ten years.
“Our rivers, lakes, and drinking water can only be clean if the streams that flow into them are protected,” said Taryn Hallweaver, Director of Environment Maine. “One in three Mainers get their drinking water from sources that depend on small streams and wetlands currently unprotected from pollution. That’s why today’s action is the biggest victory for clean water in a decade.”
For nearly 40 years, the Clean Water Act, authored primarily by Maine’s Senator Edmund Muskie, who was inspired to act by the severely polluted Androscoggin River he grew up along, ensured federal protections for all of Maine’s waters. Unfortunately, a set of polluter-driven lawsuits and Supreme Court decisions in the 2000s opened up loopholes that left nearly 25,000 miles of streams in Maine without clear protection under the Act.
“Everyone agrees that the Clean Water Act has been a resounding success for rivers inMaine and across the nation. Looking back it's hard to believe how polluted many of our rivers were and how far they've come,” said Landis Hudson, Executive Director with Maine Rivers. “Now we have a historic opportunity to better protect our wetlands and streams by actively supporting the Clean Water Act rule. It's an important opportunity for our future.”
The court rulings had put small streams, headwaters and certain wetlands in a perilous legal limbo, allowing polluters and developers to dump into them or destroy them, in many cases without a permit. In a four-year period following the decisions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had to drop more than 1,500 cases against polluters, according to one analysis by the New York Times.
Today’s rule, first proposed in March 2014 by EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is backed by robust scientific review. It returns Clean Water Act protections to streams that feed the drinking water sources for nearly 500,000 Mainers and one in three Americans. Millions of acres of wetlands, vital for flood control filtering pollutants, and recharging groundwater supplies, will also again be shielded under federal law.
“You can’t have healthy food without healthy soil, and you can’t have healthy soil without clean water,” said Heather Spalding, deputy director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “This rule will provide healthy returns for farmers, consumers and ecological systems across the country.”
Aside from agriculture, clean water is also crucial to supporting fish, wildlife and Maine’s vibrant recreational industry. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, $1.4 billion was spent on wildlife recreation in Maine in 2011, including $372 million on fishing, and more than 1.1 million people participated in these recreation activities.
“The Clean Water Act was passed to make America’s rivers and streams swimmable, fishable and drinkable,” said Jeff Reardon, President of the Maine Council of Trout Unlimited. “Water flows downstream, so protecting headwater streams is essential to protect downstream trout habitat, recreation, and drinkablewater.”
“We can’t have healthy lakes and rivers in Maine or across the country without protecting the small streams and wetlands that feed them,” said Lisa Pohlmann, Executive Director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “The Clean Water rules will ensure that our small streams and wetlands can filter pollutantsfrom our sources of drinking water, protect against flooding, and serve as critical habitat for fish and wildlife.”
Despite broad public support for restored clean water protections, oil and gas companies, developers, and other polluters have waged a bitter campaign against them. The U.S. House has passed multiple bills to block or severely weaken the rule, including one measure three weeks ago.
While today’s action signaled the final chapter in the decade-long fight for small streams and headwaters, advocates warned today that U.S. Senate leaders were more determined than ever to use their authority derail the Clean Water Rule during the next 60 days. Last Tuesday, a key subcommittee adopted a measure by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) to thwart the rule. This summer, the Senate is likely to use the Congressional Review Act block the clean water protections, setting up a veto fight with the president.
“The decision to strengthen enforcement of the Clean Water Act to protect small streams and wetlands is an important victory, especially for Maine,” said Glen Brand, Sierra Club Maine Chapter Director. “We are counting on Maine’s congressional delegation to push back on any attempt to undermine EPA’s action.”
“Senators King and Collins have stood up for Maine’s waterways against polluters in the past, and we need them to do so again,” concluded Hallweaver. “Today the administration signed and sealed critical protections for our rivers and drinking water, but they simply won’t get delivered without Senators King and Collins.”