Our new Op-Ed on defending the Clean Water Act published in the Springfield News-Leader

Environment Missouri

Guest Commentary, May 25, 2011

Missouri waterways need stronger protections

by Ted Mathys

On April 27, the Obama administration released draft guidelines that, if enacted, would restore Clean Water Act protections to vital streams and wetlands in Missouri.

In many ways, Missouri is defined by her great rivers. Our heritage is rooted in the Missouri and Mississippi. And the wild and scenic rivers in the Ozarks, from the Current to the Eleven Point, offer spectacular float trip destinations for many Missourians. But our great rivers can only be as clean as the countless streams that feed them and the wetlands that help keep them clean. Communities across Missouri depend on our 110,000 miles of streams and thousands of acres of wetlands for fishing, hunting, swimming, and drinking water.

We’ve made significant progress in cleaning up our waterways since the Cuyahoga River burst into flames from pollution 40 years ago. Congress passed the bipartisan Clean Water Act to protect all of our waters, large and small. Today the Cuyahoga thrives again, and countless waters in Missouri are better off.

Now imagine if it was decided that Clean Water Act protections suddenly no longer applied to 66 percent of Missouri’s streams.
Unfortunately, that is precisely what the U.S. Supreme Court did in a series of decisions in response to polluters’ litigation over the past decade. Developers and others have used litigation to create loopholes in the Clean Water Act, leaving thousands of streams and millions of acres of wetlands likely beyond its scope. The decisions eroded protections for several categories of water, including streams that flow only part of the year, headwater streams, and wetlands adjacent to these streams.

Here in Missouri, 66 percent of our streams do not flow year-round, which means they may no longer be guaranteed the protections they deserve. More than 2.4 million Missourians get their drinking water from sources fed by streams that may no longer be protected.

The loopholes have also caused great legal and regulatory confusion. They have created a cumbersome and time-intensive process by which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is left to decide on a case-by-case basis which waterways are legally protected by the Clean Water Act. This has resulted in inconsistent decisions and a backlog of cases. In the past four years, hundreds of EPA’s major water pollution investigations were shelved or discontinued.

Fortunately, the court’s erroneous decisions left room for the EPA to clarify the reach of the Clean Water Act and restore its protections to Missouri’s waters. The administration’s new draft guidelines are a positive step in this direction. But it’s no great secret that big polluters are already gearing up to fight these crucial updates to our landmark clean water law.

As summer approaches and families head out for float trips, fishing vacations, and hikes along our endless streams, it is crucial that Missourians defend the 40-year track record of success that the Clean Water Act has delivered for Missouri. We must support EPA’s efforts to reaffirm that our waters are and should be protected under the Clean Water Act.

Ted Mathys is an advocate with Environment Missouri, a grassroots nonprofit organization working for clean air, clean water, and open space.