Thursday, August 21, 2014

Waters of the U.S. Benefit Us All

By Nick Gevock

Protecting the headwater streams from pollution seems like a pretty reasonable move. These are the streams that supply cold, clean water to Montana’s legendary trout rivers. Iin a state without stocking, headwaters are our hatcheries. They do more than just give fish a place for hanky-panky though. They provide critical benefits for  all Montanans, including supplying drinking water for cities and towns.

The EPA this year proposed the “Waters of the United States” rule that would put under the jurisdiction of the landmark Clean Water Act intermittent and ephemeral streams. In fact, those waters were covered by the act for decades following the initial passage of the law in 1972 and the law worked.

Then a pair of U.S. Supreme Court rulings – one in 2001 and another in 2006 – threw the jurisdiction over tributary streams into question. In essence, the court told the EPA to get its act together and write a rule to clarify which waters are covered. Until that rule was written this year, it was up to individual government officials to make the call. That threw uncertainty into whether someone needs a permit to alter or fill a waterway.

It’s that simple. The rule gives clarity and certainty. And in truth it’s less restrictive than the way the act was applied for three decades.

The rule is not an expansion of EPA authority. It includes explicit exemptions for normal farming practices. It exempts all man-made ponds and farmer’s irrigation ditches. Rather, it defines the waterways as within the marks of where the water normally flows, even if that’s only for part of the year during natural runoff. This is about water that we all use, not about the land.

But that’s not good enough for some. Some groups have engaged on a campaign of misinformation, stoked by fear and hatred. The rhetoric is outlandish. They say: If you have a puddle in a tire track, that’s covered. Farm ditches will be covered, they claim. A farmer even told an EPA official during a listening session in Missouri that the agency was out to “enslave” farmers. Really.

The best source to dispel all these myths comes from the National Farmers Union. It produced a fact sheet that takes on every myth about the rule head on, and the group strongly supports it. And having a clear definition of which waters are in and which are out benefits everyone – farmers, ranchers, developers, anglers, and of course 117 million Americans who depend on these waters for drinking water. Of course fish and wildlife benefit too.

In truth, the only time someone should worry about these waters is when they will either pollute or fill in one of these areas. And there’s another element to the rule that speaks to the good of everyone. When these waters are polluted, it costs cities and towns a great deal more to treat the water. That’s a cost many bear.

As conservationist hunters and anglers, we know that you can’t have quality habitat without clean water. The WOTUS rule goes a long way to restoring clear protections for these tributaries and keeping Montana’s coldwater fishery world class. 

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