House Bill to Protect Wetlands Sparks Controversy

Aug. 1, 2007
A bill to reinstate broad federal protections for wetlands has drawn fire from the National Water Resources Association.

by Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

A bill to reinstate broad federal protections for wetlands has drawn fire from the National Water Resources Association.

The “Clean Water Restoration Act” was drafted by Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.), and Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.). Another 155 representatives have signed on.

The bill would restore federal protection of waters and wetlands by clarifying what cosponsors said was Congress’ original intent in the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA). It substitutes the phrase “waters of the U.S.” for “navigable waters of the U.S.” in the CWA, effectively reversing Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 that limited wetlands protections.

The bill said that millions of Americans “depend on wetlands and other waters of the U.S. to filter water and recharge surface and subsurface drinking water supplies, protect human health, and create economic opportunity.” It said that source-water protection areas containing small or intermittent streams provide drinking water for more than 110,000,000 Americans.

The National Water Resources Association complained that the bill “attempts to trump the authority of states by expanding control of the federal government into all aspects of water use, reaching far beyond the protective programs of the CWA as it currently stands.”

It said the bill “will expand federal control over every possible type of water body, puddle, moist land area, man-made waterway, storage facility, conveyance system, holding facility, or re-regulating reservoir.

“The new definition of ‘waters of the U.S.’ would include everything from swimming pools and hot tubs to stock watering ponds on private property. In addition, any land use activity which has any possible impact upon any of these waters will be regulated and subject to fines and environmental activist lawsuits.”

EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers recently issued a joint guidance for their field offices reflecting the 2006 Supreme Court opinion in Rapanos vs. U.S. and Carabell vs. Corps of Engineers. The guidance clarifies activities in wetlands, tributaries, and other waters that would require a CWA Section 404 permit.

EPA said the administration’s policy calls for no net loss of wetlands, the restoration and protection of 3 million acres of wetlands by 2009, and the conservation of isolated wetlands such as prairie potholes.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), senior Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, applauded the guidance. “The federal government should not be regulating local and individual land use decisions. A proper balance can be struck between protecting our nation’s waters and protecting the ability of the nation’s towns to determine their own growth patterns.”

House Members Form Water Caucus

Five members of the House of Representatives have formed the Congressional Water Caucus to promote dialogue about water issues

Caucus cochairman are Reps. John Linder (R-Ga.) and Jim Costa (D-Calif.). Other founders were George Radanovich (R-Calif.), Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.). A number of other representatives have expressed interest in joining.

Congress has more than 200 caucuses focused on various subjects, but until now, not on water. Sponsors said the goal of the caucus is to become a clearinghouse for water resource information and potential solutions for water problems.

Organizers said their first goal would be to press for passage of a House bill, sponsored by Rep. Linder and others, to create a “Twenty-First Century Water Commission” to develop recommendations for a comprehensive U.S. water strategy.

That strategy would identify incentives needed to ensure an adequate and dependable water supply to meet U.S. needs for the next 50 years, seek ways to avoid increased mandates on state and local governments, and suggest financing options.

The bill is awaiting action by the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Water and Power.

Rep. Radanovich said, “The issues of water storage, supply, and quality are critical to our livelihood, particularly in the West where water is so precious.

“With major droughts popping up all over the country, the formation of this caucus is not only very timely but much needed.”

Water Facilities Urged to Protect Chlorine Supplies

Federal officials, aware of the increased use of chlorine in Iraqi bomb attacks, have urged water and wastewater plants to take greater care with their chlorine supplies.

In a briefing on the Department of Homeland Security’s new chemical security rules, Sec. Michael Chertoff urged operators of water and waste treatment plants to secure chemicals like chlorine from terrorists. The plants are covered by EPA rules, but Chertoff said they plants constitute “gaps in our system of regulation.”

EPA has estimated that 3,000 drinking-water and wastewater treatment plants store more than 2,500 pounds of chlorine gas.

Separately, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) has urged the Department of Transportation to stiffen its regulations for wastewater and drinking water treatment plants that receive chlorine gas from railcars. CSB said remotely operated cutoff valves should be installed to quickly shut down the flow of chlorine in the event of an unloading accident.

CSB cautioned, “Some chlorine railcar transfer systems lack effective detection and emergency shutdown devices, leaving the public vulnerable to potential large-scale toxic releases.”

EPA Reports on National Estuaries

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released its first National Estuary Program Coastal Condition Report, which ranks the condition of ecological resources in the 28 estuaries of EPA’s National Estuary Program (NEP). This report serves as a foundation for EPA’s efforts to protect, manage and restore coastal ecosystems.

“As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the National Estuary Program, we are seeing that nothing can compare to the value of partnerships in delivering lasting environmental results,” said EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson. “Under the leadership of President Bush, more than 1 million acres of coastal habitat have been restored and protected. Together with our vital partners, EPA is ensuring our coasts and wetlands remain beautiful, ecologically-sound treasures for generations of Americans.”

Overall, the NEPs are in fair condition and scored better than or equal to all other non-NEP U.S. estuaries despite significant population pressures. The information in the report is based upon EPA-sponsored monitoring data collected from 28 NEPs between 1999 and 2003 as well as monitoring data collected by the individual NEPs.

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