July 27, 2008

Nothing to Love About That Dirty Water

Clean water protections need strengthening by Congress

Memories can be short. It was only a generation ago that Maine's waters were in serious trouble. In 1970, the Androscoggin River was labeled by Newsweek as one of the 10 most polluted rivers in the nation, placing it in the infamous company of the Cuyahoga River, which was so contaminated, it caught fire. Fumes from the Presumpscot River caused paint to peel off nearby homes. Boaters and anglers were told to stay away from a polluted Casco Bay.Outside of Maine, things were no better. Rivers were open sewers. Lake Erie was declared biologically dead. More than 70 percent of the nation's rivers were not suitable for drinking, fishing or swimming.

Today, while challenges still exist, water quality has remarkably improved. Casco Bay is a tourist attraction for boaters and anglers. People can fish and clam in our coastal waters. Maine rivers are again places people can enjoy.

For this, we can thank Sen. Edmund Muskie. In 1972, Muskie led the effort to pass the most comprehensive water protection statute, the Clean Water Act. This law was meant to guarantee protection against pollution and destruction of all-important waters. To achieve this, the act protects "navigable waters," defined as "waters of the United States." Congress realized that water flows downhill, and to protect larger waters, such as Casco Bay and the Androscoggin River, it was necessary to protect the streams and wetlands that are connected with those waters.

For 30 years, the clear intent of the Clean Water Act was carried out with great success.

Now, this vital progress is in peril.

U.S. Supreme Court decisions and administrative fiats purporting to interpret these decisions have thrown the protections of the Clean Water Act into confusion. More than 20 million acres of wetlands and thousands of miles of intermittently flowing streams across the country are at risk. Decisions to protect these waters now must be thrashed out on a cumbersome, litigation-intensive, case- by-case basis.

Regulators are overwhelmed with new red tape that surrounds previously simple decisions. Regulatory agencies must complete an eight-page form just to determine if a water body is protected, adding months, or even years, to permitting decisions, costing money, time and taxpayer resources better spent on cleaning our waters.

In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers had to complete this process just to reach the obvious conclusion that Casco Bay is navigable and protected.

The threat to Maine is all too real. Every major river and coastal water body in Maine depends on these "non-navigable" streams and small rivers (along with neighboring wetlands) which could lose Clean Water Act protections.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 389,000 Mainers receive some of their drinking water from areas containing these streams. These streams are crucial to restoring our Atlantic salmon runs, due to fish sensitivity to changes in water quality and quantity. Maine has almost 298,000 acres of so-called "isolated" waters - particularly vulnerable to losing safeguards.

Maine's Department of Environmental Protection has said, "Much of the progress we have made through water quality protection efforts [under the Clean Water Act] could be put at risk should federal protection of these resources be reduced."

Our state has commendable water quality protection laws, but there remains a strong need for continued federal protections. Maine shares many of its waters, including the Androscoggin River, with other states. Protections for these waters are only as good as those of our least protective neighbor. Confusion and delay at the federal permitting level creates confusion and delay here in Maine.

It's time for the confusion to end and common sense to prevail. The Clean Water Restoration Act would fix the current mess. It has broad support, and has received Congressional hearings. It would clarify what Sen. Muskie and his colleagues intended: Congress meant to protect all important waters.

If this legislation is not speedily passed, we face a return to the days of dirty water.

U.S. Rep. Tom Allen supports this important bill. Sens. Snowe and Collins, and Rep. Michaud, have yet to voice their support. They should continue in the proud tradition of Sen. Muskie and do so.

The future of Maine's clean water depends on it.Lynne Lewis serves on the Board of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and is also chair of the Economics Department of Bates College. She lives in Portland.

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