Sunday, August 2, 2015

Brian Wagner: Fight to protect nation's waters isn't over

originally printed in the Morning Call July 31, 2015

Who among us was lucky enough as a child to have played with a toy boat in a little park brook or a neighborhood creek? We'd launch our craft and watch in wonder as the swirling currents washed it downstream. We'd chase along, pluck the toy from the water, run back upstream and set it adrift again.
Eventually, we might have let our boat keep going. As it disappeared we'd think, "It is going to a big river now." That is how our nation's waters work. They start small. And they grow. And what goes in upstream ends up downstream.
So when Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, the intent was to implement protections for the entire system. That's how it went for three decades, and the effects were striking. Our nation's rivers became healthier, and the loss of important wetlands decreased dramatically. And that's how things can go again now that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corp of Engineers have released a rule restoring protections of many of the wetlands and headwaters streams once covered by the Clean Water Act, but lost because of a pair of controversial Supreme Court rulings in the 2000s. The Waters of the United States rule, released on May 27, provides clear definitions of the waters protected by the Clean Water Act.

Irrigation systems, ponds and many ditches are specifically excluded, and the rule reaffirms existing exemptions for normal forestry, farming and ranching practices. This is great news for the 117 million Americans whose drinking water supplies are sourced from headwater streams, including some that run only intermittently or at certain times of the year.
And this is also great news for hunters and anglers, whose pursuits are inextricably tied to healthy woods and waters, and whose passions contribute mightily to our nation's economy. In Pennsylvania alone, recreational fishing results in annual trickle down economic impact of more than $850 million, according to an American Sportfishing Association analysis of data collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Growing up in Northampton County, I had the opportunity to fish in and hunt along my home waters, the Bushkill Creek and its tributaries. The Clean Water Act and the conservation movement that spawned its bipartisan support in 1972 had much to do with the cleanup and revival of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers. Sportsmen like me can again fish for American shad in the Delaware and trout in the Lehigh River. Today, no matter where in the country I find myself, whether it's a large river like the Yellowstone or my home waters in the Lehigh Valley, the quality of my fishing experience is directly linked to the quality of the waters upstream.
More than a million Americans provided comments to the proposed clean water rule after its proposal in 2014, and more than 80 percent of the comments supported restoring the common sense protections to our nation's important headwaters and wetlands. This isn't simply a matter of opinions. During the process the EPA released a 400-page, peer-reviewed report summarizing the science supporting the connection between America's small headwaters and its larger rivers. While the release of this rule is encouraging, the fight to protect our nation's waters isn't over.
Some industry groups waged a campaign against the proposal, and they continue to try to strike fear into landowners with false claims that the rule will affect normal use of private property. They have even managed to convince some members of Congress to fight the rule. Fending off that assault will fall to conscientious elected officials such as Pennsylvania's Sen. Bob Casey, who long has been an ally to the state's hunters and anglers and who can make a difference by showing that this is not about politics, but about science.
And that science is not only indisputable, it is not complicated. Waters start small. And they grow. And what goes in upstream ends up downstream.
Brian Wagner, who lives in Nazareth, is president of the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited.
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