The Clean Water Rule: One year later

by Senator Ben Cardin and Gene Karpinski, originally posted on May 27, 2016

A year ago today, at a spot overlooking the Anacostia River, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Army Corps of Engineers Assistant Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy clinked water glasses after finalizing the Clean Water Rule.   It was certainly a moment to celebrate, as this rule fixed confusion that left more than half our nation’s streams and 20 million acres of wetlands vulnerable to pollution.  Because of the rule, these important streams and wetlands were now better protected, thus safeguarding the waterways that feed into and filter the drinking water of 1 in 3 Americans.

The Clean Water Rule was years in the making.  During the process, the EPA and Army Corps held more than 400 stakeholder meetings and collected over 1 million public comments—sportsmen, small businesses, environmentalists, farmers and ranchers, public health groups, religious organizations, and state and local elected officials all weighed in with their thoughts and concerns. This well-vetted process resulted in a scientifically sound rule that would protect the sources of our drinking water from pollution.  Furthermore, the rule is extremely popular—a League of Conservation Voters (LCV) poll found that 80 percent of Americans supported the rule.

Unfortunately, after getting this much-needed and long-awaited clarity, challenges to the rule were filed in several courts, and the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has halted nationwide implementation of the Clean Water Rule while the courts decide if the EPA and Army Corps have followed the directions laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court.  So, for the time being, the small waterways that filter into our drinking water sources remain vulnerable to pollution.

In the meantime, water has made headlines.  Across the country, we are painfully aware of the water crisis in Flint, Mich. that left 8,000 of the city’s children with lead poisoning.

This tragedy originated in the city’s water source: the Flint River.  After 40 years of sourcing water from Lake Huron, a state-appointed emergency manager authorized switching Flint’s water source to the Flint River, a river suffering a legacy of pollution. This switch meant Flint’s water now needed additional treatments to fight higher levels of pollution in the river water, and tragically, the decision was made not to use these controls and the polluted water then corroded the city’s lead pipes.  Between antiquated lead infrastructure, polluted source water, and gross incompetence, the people of Flint are suffering from an environmental disaster that could have been prevented.

Drinking water hardship is not unique to Flint.  Across the United States, half a million children are dealing with unsafe lead exposure.  When President Obama visited Flint in May he told our country, “It’s not too much for all Americans to expect that their water will be safe.”  He couldn’t be more right.

We need a robust strategy for safe drinking water, one that ensures our water sources are clean and our water delivery systems are dependable. The Clean Water Rule helps remedy the source portion of this dilemma: it is an indispensable tool for keeping our water clean before it enters our pipes.

In fact, in Maryland, the Clean Water Rule would protect the drinking water sources of 2 in every 3 residents.  And the benefits extend beyond drinking water—by restoring protections to 2,210 miles of Maryland streams and thousands of acres of wetlands, Marylanders will enjoy enhanced flood protection, recharged groundwater supplies, and enhanced wildlife habitat, which supports the state’s outdoor recreation, especially hunting and fishing.

But with the Clean Water Rule stayed in the courts and attacked over and over again in Congress, our wetlands and streams remain susceptible to pollution.  On the anniversary of this critical rule, we should be clinking glasses to a year of better protected drinking water. Instead, we are left idling, watching a nation cope with unsafe drinking water, while we await access to one of our most crucial clean water tools.

To fight our country’s water crisis, we need to go to the source—that is what the Clean Water Rule does.

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