In a strong affirmation of the Clean Water Act, the Obama Administration today proposed new instructions to federal agencies on how to interpret parts of the law in light of two Supreme Court decisions that essentially had stripped away protections from many U.S. water bodies, including those that play an integral role in the health of the Great Lakes.
The actions by the Obama Administration represent a big step forward in the effort to restore the Great Lakes and protect water quality, public health, and recreational opportunities for millions of people in the region and across the country.
Action Can Bolster Restoration Efforts
The administration’s proposed guidance—once finalized—can complement efforts to restore the Lakes. In the words of Jeff Skelding, campaign manager for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition:
President Obama’s investment to restore the Great Lakes is already producing results, and we expect that today’s action will only bolster efforts to protect one of this country’s most iconic waters—one that supplies drinking water to more than 30 million people.
We encourage the Obama Administration to urgently move to implement a final rule that restores Clean Water Act protections to waters that millions of people in the Great Lakes region and across the country depend on for their drinking water, public health and recreational opportunities.
Restore and Protect
It has long been understood that addressing the suite of urgent problems facing the Lakes – from invasive species to sewage contamination to habitat destruction – would require a host of corrective actions. A 2005 paper by pre-eminent scientists in the region documented in compelling terms the cumulative impact of threats to the Lakes—and offered a prescription for recovery that includes:
- Restoring past damage;
- Preventing new damage from occurring; and,
- Protecting remaining healthy parts of the Great Lakes ecosystem.
To date, the Obama Administration and U.S. Congress have made important investments to restore the Great Lakes. The $775 million budgeted for fiscal years 2010 and 2011 as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative are putting people to work to clean up toxic pollution, combat invasive species and restore wildlife habitat.
Today’s actions will re-establish strong protections to the streams and wetlands which feed the Lakes. This is an essential step if we are to nurse the Great Lakes back to health.
Protecting Wetlands—the Kidneys of the Lakes
The administration’s proposed guidance will restore protections that were stripped away by the Supreme Court rulings. (For more information on how the court decisions impacted waters in the Great Lakes region, read state-specific fact sheets on Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, courtesy of coalition member the National Wildlife Federation.)
According to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the proposed guidance—once finalized—will restore protections for waters that more than 117 million people across the United States depend on for drinking water.
The administration’s actions are especially welcome in the effort to protect wetlands—which are essential to clean water. Wetlands filter pollutants, prevent erosion and flooding, and provide a home for fish and wildlife. The Great Lakes region has lost more than half of its historic wetlands—and more were vulnerable to pollution and destruction based on the murky Supreme Court rulings. The widely supported “Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy to Restore the Protect the Great Lakes” recognized the special importance wetlands play in protecting ecosystem health—calling for the restoration of more than 1 million acres of wetlands.
While the Obama Administration’s actions are welcome, they are not the final word. The proposed guidance will go through a 60-day public comment period, followed by a final rule-making.
The EPA has refrained from putting a timeline on when the final rulemaking will be complete, which is why in the coming months, it will be imperative for Great Lakes advocates to have their voice heard so that we can restore Clean Water Act protections to regional waters.
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- Additional Resources:
For background on how the two Supreme Court decisions weakened the Clean Water Act, read: “Courting Disaster: How the Supreme Court Has Broken the Clean Water Act and Why Congress Must Fix It,” produced by Earthjustice, Environment America, Clean Water Action, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and Southern Environmental Law Center.