EPA Rule Would Close Loopholes in Clean Water Act, Restore Protections for Streams and Wetlands
Today, in the biggest step forward for clean water in more than a decade, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a rule to close loopholes in the Clean Water Act that leave more than half of America’s streams and millions of acres of wetlands at risk of unchecked pollution and development.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
“Whether we look back to the recent spill in West Virginia that left 300,000 people without drinking water or ahead to the dead zones that will blight Lake Erie and the Chesapeake Bay this summer, it’s obvious that our waterways are not as clean or safe as we need them to be—for our drinking water, for recreation, or for the health of our ecosystems and wildlife,” said Margie Alt, executive director of Environment America. “Today’s action by the EPA will help ensure that all our waterways get the protection they need so we can enjoy them for years to come.”
This rule-making comes after a decade of uncertainty over the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, following polluter-led Supreme Court challenges in 2001 and 2006. The rule, which could be finalized by the end of this year, would restore Clean Water Act protections to 20 million acres of wetlands and more than half our nation’s streams, restoring protections to the drinking water for 117 million Americans.
“Today’s action is vital to the health of America’s great waters,” said Alt. “By protecting the streams that feed into mighty rivers like the Mississippi and the wetlands that filter pollution from the Puget Sound and other iconic waters, this rule is a safety net for all the waterways Americans care about.”
With so much at stake, Environment America and its state affiliates have waged an intensive multi-year campaign to restore these Clean Water Act protections—including more than 1 million face-to-face conversations across the country, and rallying more than 400 local elected officials, 300farmers and 300 small business owners to call on the Obama Administration to take action.
“Water is so important for all farmers—big and small. It’s critical to our way of life,” said Lynn Utesch, owner of Guardians of the Field Farm, a cattle farm in Kewanee County, WI. “Here in Wisconsin, we’ve experienced a new dead zone in Green Bay as an effect of the health of our streams and other waterways. To protect the waters we love and need, like Lake Michigan, we need to make sure the Clean Water Act protects all our waterways.”
Unfortunately, many of the nation’s biggest polluters have opposed the EPA’s action. Thousands of miles of pipelines running through wetlands prompted Big Oil to threaten “legal warfare” over the issue. Factory farms that dump millions of gallons of manure annually attacked the rule as a “land grab.” And with mountaintop removal literally burying valley streams in rubble and waste, big coal is also opposing these common sense clean water protections.
In Sept. 2013, the EPA announced plans to move forward with the rule-making and simultaneously released a draft science report on the connection between smaller streams and wetlands and downstream waters, which makes the scientific case for the rule-making. Members of the public submitted more than 150,000 public comments in support of the report’s findings.
“When finalized, this rule will be the biggest step forward for clean water in more than a decade,” said Alt. “Thank you, Administrator McCarthy and all the staff at the EPA, for fighting to protect clean water. We look forward to working with you to get the job done.”
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.