Environment Illinois: Clean Water Restoration Act integral to clean waterways, safe drinking water
By Bruce Ratain
Field Associate, Environment Illinois
From the days of Mark Twain, the mighty Mississippi River has been known the world over as an American treasure. The Mississippi and its tributaries, like the Rock River, have particular significance to those lucky enough to have lived and have grown up along them—fishing, swimming and gazing at their majestic, meandering waters.
The same is true, of course, for all Illinoisans, whether their local waterway is Lake Michigan or a local fishing hole. Throughout our state, clean water is essential to our quality of life, our economy, our health, the health of plants and animals, and the integrity of their habitats.
For more than three decades, all of Illinois’ waters enjoyed basic protections from pollution and development under the Clean Water Act, the 1972 law with the stated goal of making all the nation’s water safe for drinking and swimming. The question of which waters the Clean Water Act protected was as clear as a mountain stream: The Mississippi? Protected. The Illinois River? Protected. The Big Muddy? Salt Creek? The small springs that interlace northwestern Illinois? Protected, protected and protected, along with every lake, river, stream and wetland in the country, big and small.
But in 2006, in a bitterly-divided decision, the Supreme Court exempted small streams and many wetlands from the law. George W. Bush administration regulators went right along, eagerly determining in case after case waterways to be “non-jurisdictional,” or no longer covered by the Clean Water Act. The effect? In Illinois, more than half of our streams, and 150,000 acres of wetlands, are open to unlimited pollution and development.
That’s disturbing news because our great waterways like the Mississippi can only be as healthy as the small streams and wetlands that feed and clean them. And, of course, those smaller waters are critical in and off themselves. A 2009 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study found 1.7 million Illinoisans’ drinking water comes at least in part from waterways that would likely lose protection if the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Clean Water Act stands. (See EPA’s map at http://www.epa.gov/owow/wetlands/science/surface_drinking_water/index.html).
Luckily, there is a proposed bill, the Clean Water Restoration Act, that would clarify what should be obvious—that America’s waterways are no one’s dumping ground—by affirming in statute that the Clean Water Act applies to all American surface waters. Although some of its opponents have claimed otherwise, the act does nothing new; it simply codifies the Clean Water Act as it was implemented by all jurisdictions for nearly 30 years, until the Bush administration.
Illinois’ congressional delegation—especially U.S. Reps. Jerry Costello, Phil Hare, Timothy Johnson, Dan Lipinski and Aaron Schock, who sit on the committee that will determine the fate of this bill—should support this critical legislation.
Bruce Ratain, field associate for Environment Illinois, can be reached at email@example.com.
From the June 16-22, 2010 issue
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