Conservation groups praise support of Clean Water Act

Contributing Writer

Washington – Conservation groups last month were quick to praise
the Obama administration’s support for the proposed Clean Water
Restoration Act, a federal bill that is said to restore waters
protections awarded by the 1972 Clean Water Act, but recently
weakened by Supreme Court decisions.

In a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., several members of
the presidential administration urged the chair of the Senate
Committee on Environment and Public Works to pass the bill,
authored by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. The letter says the bill
could clarify federal jurisdiction following court decisions in
2001 and 2006.

“A clear statement of Congressional intent is needed to provide
a foundation for steady and predictable implementation of the Clean
Water Act in the years to come,” the letter states as it outlines
principles for legislation that attempts to clarify the term
“waters of the United States.”

Not only do conservation groups say current interpretation
leaves thousands of wetlands unprotected, but federal agencies say
the permitting process concerning work done in wetlands is
inconsistent, at best.

Still, there are groups that fear expanded government control of
wetlands and the possibility of more lawsuits regarding work in
“waters of the United States,” the language included in the
bill.

Some, including the National Center for Public Policy Research,
say the CWRA could mean new restrictions for hunters and
anglers.

But groups like Ducks Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt
Conservation Partnership are firmly behind the legislation, a
similar version of which died in Congress just a couple years
ago.

“A whole host of ecological features, which provide many
important societal benefits like clean drinking water, healthy fish
and wildlife populations, flood and erosion control, and
recreational opportunities, remain at risk unless Congress acts,”
said Steve Moyer, vice president of government affairs for Trout
Unlimited, a member of the TRCP.

Ducks Unlimited’s director of public policy, Bart James, said of
the correspondence: “As the No. 1 issue important to sportsmen,
this is a very positive development.”

DU says about 20 million acres of geographically isolated
wetlands are at risk of pollution and destruction under current
guidance policies of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Just a few states have wetlands protections equivalent to the
Clean Water Act, prior to the court cases – Rapanos v. United
States in 2006, and Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v.
United States Army Corps of Engineers in 2001.

“Federal agencies have faced significant challenges implementing
these recent decisions,” the letter to Sen. Boxer said. “In
addition, U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal have taken different
positions in interpreting the Supreme Court decisions, further
complicating implementation.”

The letter said these inconsistencies “can be time-consuming and
expensive. Delayed and unpredictable decisions are frustrating and
costly to persons seeking approval of projects related to these
waters.”

The letter urged committee members to consider four general
principles:

€ Broadly protect the nation’s waters;

€ Make the definition of covered waters predictable and
manageable;

€ Promote consistency between the Clean Water Act and
agricultural wetlands programs; and

€ Recognize long-standing practices. For example, “a carefully
crafted statutory exemption for ‘prior converted cropland’ would be
useful to both farmers and federal agencies,” the letter
states.

The letter was signed by Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on
Environmental Quality; Lisa Jackson, administrator of the EPA; Tom
Vilsack, secretary of the Department of Agriculture; Ken Salazar,
secretary of the Department of the Interior; and Terrence “Rock”
Salt, acting assistant secretary of the Army (Civil Works).

Jan Goldman-Carter, wetlands and water resources counsel at the
National Wildlife Federation, called action by Congress on the bill
in 2009 “critical.”

There currently are 24 co-sponsors of Feingold’s bill.

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