In a move supported by U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, the House of Representatives voted recently to eliminate vital clean water protections for waters like the Columbia River. HR 2018 is one of the most brazen attempts to roll back the Clean Water Act since it was signed into law in 1972.
Before the Clean Water Act, our waters were in serious trouble. Major cities dumped untreated sewage every day, and industries used rivers for waste disposal. Lake Erie was declared “dead.” A spark caused oil on the surface of the Cuyahoga River to burst into flames. And most of the nation’s waters were not safe enough for fishing and swimming. The weak law on the books, which made states the principal protectors of clean waters and provided a very limited role for the federal government, had failed.
The strong federal role that Congress created when it passed the Clean Water Act 39 years ago was intended to overcome a patchwork of state water-quality standards and create a level economic playing field among the states. The federal role was needed to ensure that states did not allow weak water-quality standards at the expense of their downstream neighbors.
Thanks to the Clean Water Act, and its strong federal component, we’ve made a lot of progress as a nation since 1972. Today nearly two-thirds of our lakes and rivers are safe for recreation, fishing and wildlife. Compare this to 40 years ago, only one-third of the nation’s waters were safe for fishing and swimming. Wetland losses were estimated at about 500,000 acres per year. Agricultural runoff resulted in the erosion of 2.25 billion tons of soil and the deposit of large amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen into many waters. Although there is still work to be done, the Clean Water Act has proved to greatly reduce the high levels of contamination by heavy metals in our Columbia River. Prior to the CWA metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, copper, and cadmium posed a serious threat to salmon and sturgeon as well as human health.
Still work to be done
Despite our progress, many American waterways, including some in Washington, still don’t meet minimum water-quality standards — and many more will once again be polluted under the bill supported by Rep. Herrera Beutler, H.R. 2018. This bill undermines decades of progress and goes against common sense. It makes it impossible for the Environmental Protection Agency to make sure that states have strong, enforceable water-quality standards, and leaves states like Washington without strong legal protections against pollution from neighboring states entering the Columbia or the Spokane rivers, for example. It would even allow states failing to meet clean water standards to continue receiving federal taxpayer dollars for inadequate programs.
The new legislation would make it easier for companies to dump their waste and garbage into our lakes and rivers. At the same time it would limit the EPA’s ability to intervene in the most destructive projects threatening drinking water supplies, fisheries and recreational areas. In effect, HR 2018 would return our nation to the failed state-by-state, race to the bottom, water pollution programs of the mid-20th century that the Clean Water Act was intended to correct. Clean water is a basic right for all Americans. We should expect to be able to eat the fish we catch on the Lewis River, or the Columbia, and enjoy swimming in Frenchman’s Bar, and drink water, without fear of getting sick.
For four decades the Clean Water Act has been helping to make that possible. Rep. Herrera Beutler’s backtracking on our clean water protections is not only an assault on our health and environment, but is out of step with the American public. She has abandoned the people of Washington by leaving our waters in the hands of developers, mining companies and other polluting interests who look at the bottom line more than the health and welfare of communities they pollute. Rep. Herrera Beutler needs to stand up to polluters and special interests for the health and future of Washingtonians.
Nicholas Callero is Regional Outreach Coordinator in Portland for the National Wildlife Federation, focusing on conservation issues primarily in Oregon and SW Washington. Laura Stevens is Associate Field Organizer for the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign in Portland.