Original Intent

Using the Clean Water Act as their compass, Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) are navigating murky political waters to deliver legislation that would return the brawn and intent to the original Act signed by President Nixon in 1972.

More than one-third of America’s waterways are subject to “No Fishing and No Swimming” signs because polluters continue to evade the rules set by the Clean Water Act. After years of poisonous industrial waste invading U.S. waterways, the Clean Water Act was passed by Congress in 1972. It was meant to stop the abuse of all water resources. But in the intervening decades, court decisions and the deliberate whittling away at the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority have resulted in a muddled law that has lost touch with the original intentions of the Congress that approved it and has allowed more pollution to seep into our waterways.

U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 require regulators to prove a body of water’s connection to larger, navigable waters before the federal government can protect them. Unless reversed soon, the effect will surely be increased erosion, pollution, flooding and the destruction of fish and wildlife habitat.

Wetlands are especially endangered as more than half have been drained for development, farming and other reasons. At this point, 100 million acres of once pristine wetlands have been destroyed, according to the Great Lakes Restoration Council.

In a recent Op-ed in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Oberstar make it clear that the Clean Water Act was meant to cover all water not just “navigable waters” – the goal was to prevent pollution. They wrote:

“Contrary to what some would have you believe, Congress intended the Clean Water Act’s protection to extend to all waters and wetlands, including tributaries that flow only intermittently and do not have a continuous surface connection.”

The Oberstar-Feingold bill would restore the Act by clearly reaffirming its intention to protect all waters of the United States, thereby turning back recent court decisions, cleaning up the confusion among regulators, and jumpstarting stalled projects. The bill has more than 170 cosponsors from both parties in the House; 20 cosponsors in the Senate; and more than 300 organizations supporting it, including dozens of members of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

It’s now time to finish the job and pass the Clean Water Restoration Act to protect all U.S. waters that serve as the basis for our economy, public health, and way of life.

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