Wednesday, Sep 19, 2018
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Toward cleaner water

The federal Clean Water Act needs to apply to streams and wetlands, as well as lakes and rivers


Volunteers from Toledo ZooTeens, in conjunction with Partners for Clean Streams, searched the Maumee River to remove old lures that are made of lead in June, 2012.

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As vital as it is, the federal Clean Water Act does not now protect from pollution and potential destruction the streams and wetlands that supply drinking water to about one in three Americans — including almost half of Ohioans, some 5.2 million people in all.

A new rule issued by the Obama Administration will provide these safeguards and promote the restoration of the Great Lakes, if partisan and special-interest obstructionism aren’t allowed to block it. Ohio’s congressional delegation needs to get behind the rule.

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Congress passed — and Republican President Richard Nixon signed — the Clean Water Act in 1972, in the wake of such environmental fiascoes as the Cuyahoga River in northeast Ohio catching fire in 1969 and alarmists pronouncing Lake Erie “dead” in the late 1960s. The law, and a massive federal investment in sewer upgrades in the 1970s, helped clean up waterways, revive fisheries, and restore recreational opportunities that pollution had decimated.

Yet two muddled U.S. Supreme Court rulings during the George W. Bush administration raised questions about whether the Clean Water Act applies to most streams and wetlands. For nearly a decade, the confusion caused by these rulings has weakened anti-pollution enforcement and led to an accelerated loss of wetlands.

The new rule issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers would restore Clean Water Act protections that the rulings left in doubt. That coverage includes about 60 percent of streams and an estimated 20 million acres of wetlands nationwide.

These streams, in Ohio and elsewhere, feed into sources of drinking water. Wetlands protect against floods, filter and absorb pollution, keep groundwater supplies healthy, help regulate water levels, and offer critical wildlife habitat.

Some Republican lawmakers already are threatening to defeat the rule, either by refusing to fund its enforcement or through other legislative review procedures. Leaders of the GOP-controlled House, notably House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, have offered hysterically overstated denunciations of the rule.

Land developers, oil and gas producers, and other industrial interests oppose the rule. So do some farm lobbies, although the new rule will not affect traditional agricultural practices.

Overall, Ohio has lost 90 percent of its historic wetlands — the greatest loss of any state other than California. Protecting the wetlands and streams that remain would protect drinking water, encourage wildlife recreation, and help Ohio industries that rely on clean water, such as farming, brewing, and tourism.

The new rule will promote efforts to restore the Great Lakes, as well as more than 1 million acres of wetlands in the region. The restoration initiative is as important to the job-creating economies of Ohio and other Great Lakes states as it is to the environment: The Brookings Institution reports that every dollar invested in Great Lakes restoration yields a return of at least $2.

Todd Ambs, the director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, a group of Midwestern environmental organizations and related groups, said that federal law needs to cover any “body of water that is capable of carrying pollution to navigable waterways.” He told The Blade’s editorial page: “It’s not called the Partially Clean Water Act.”

Toledo’s water crisis last August, which deprived nearly 500,000 local residents of their usual source of drinking water for three days, showed the danger to Lake Erie from pollution in the tributaries that feed it. Pollution of streams and wetlands can, and does, foul rivers and lakes.

A poll conducted by the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition and the National Wildlife Federation found that most of the Ohioans they surveyed last month want the Clean Water Act to apply to streams and wetlands. Elected officials ignore these sentiments at their peril.

The new clean water rule is set to take effect in about two months, unless Congress gets in the way. It will provide the clarity that regulated farm and industrial groups have demanded for years.

The rule demands strong bipartisan support from Ohio’s congressional delegation — particularly its two senators, Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Sherrod Brown. Ohioans are unlikely to be fooled by the motivations of those who would overturn the rule.

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