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April 27, 2011

Background on Today's Clean Water Announcement

AK Stream We've heard far too many stories about mountaintop removal coal mines polluting streams in Appalachia, coal plants polluting waterways with toxic coal cash - the stories unfortunately go on and on.

Thankfully, today the Obama administration proposed important new guidelines to protect the nation’s streams and wetlands from pollution and development.

These policies could bring to an end a decade of anti-environmental policies initiated under the Bush administration that have resulted in the loss of countless streams, lakes and wetlands and threatened many of the water bodies that contribute to the drinking water of 117 million Americans

Here's the background on this latest move to protect our water (You can also learn more in this excellent NY Times editorial):

The latest threats to clean water began in 2001 with the first of two Supreme Court decisions that threatened historic Clean Water Act protections.

Using these court decisions, the Bush administration then issued new policies that expanded the threat to streams, lakes and drinking water sources.


The policies favored polluters and developers, requiring federal agencies to put on blinders and prove that each stretch of a headwater stream individually affects the health of downstream rivers, lakes and coastal waters.

Yet the reality is that the small streams and wetlands within a watershed determine the health of downstream navigable waters. As a result, since 2003, federal policy has not clearly protected these waters, and some have been polluted with oil spills and waste discharges, while others have been filled in to allow for new development. Just look at how much of our water was at stake.

Sierra Club and its allies published two reports in 2004 and 2009 with examples where the Bush administration policies failed to use the fullest extent of the law to protect lakes and streams.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) then documented that its policies failed to clearly protect the drinking water sources of some 117 million Americans. You can even use EPA's website to determine to what extent drinking water sources in states and counties might be at risk.

And now we have today's news. While today's guidance cannot reverse the 2001 Supreme Court decisions, it is based on more sound scientific principles:

The water from many small streams and wetlands in a watershed inevitably determines the quality of downstream drinking water sources and whether lakes, rivers and estuaries will support fishing and swimming. It's impossible to safeguard rivers and lakes without protecting the small, headwater streams that feed them. This policy rightly tells federal agencies to use a science-based, watershed approach to determine whether waters fall within the scope of the Clean Water Act's protections.

In the end, of course, polluters and developers will fight the new guidance and push hard to keep the old policies in place. For example, coal company Massey Energy has flaunted Clean Water Act protections in several court cases.

The Sierra Club will continue to urge the Obama administration to make these clean water protections more permanent through a final rule-making.

-- Ed Hopkins, Sierra Club Environmental Quality Director

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