Guest opinion: EPA seeks clearer clean water rules

2014-05-07T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: EPA seeks clearer clean water rulesBy SHAUN MCGRATH The Billings Gazette
May 07, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Montana is famous for its wild rivers. No one understood the importance of Western rivers more than the iconic author, Wallace Stegner — who spent his youth in Montana – when he famously said: “Water is the true wealth in a dry land.”

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a rule that will make the protection of water resources more clear and consistent, and easier for businesses that need permits. This long-awaited rule is good news for Montana.

For four decades, the Clean Water Act has protected our right to safe drinking water and pristine places to hunt, fish, swim, and play. The law doesn’t just apply to large waters like the Missouri, the Yellowstone, or Flathead Lake; it also protects the smaller streams and wetlands that weave together in a vast, interconnected system.

Unfortunately, over the last decade, the Clean Water Act has been bogged down by confusion. Two complex court decisions narrowed legal protections and muddled the understanding of what waters are — or are not — covered under the law. Protections have been especially confusing for those smaller, vital streams and wetlands. That's why this rule is so important. Based on sound science, we're proposing a rule that clarifies which waters are protected — with an eye toward those critical waters upstream.

The stakes are particularly high in Montana, where more than 300,000 miles of intermittent and ephemeral streams represent about 83 percent of all the stream miles in the state.

These high-quality headwaters and streams provide our drinking water, support fisheries and sustain our communities. We can’t afford to have the status of these waters compromised by confusion.

Economy runs on water

They also help sustain a strong economy. Montana’s farmers and ranchers need clean water to produce the fuel, food, and fiber that we rely on. Water is also a vital resource for everything from wood and paper manufacturing to metal processing and beer-making. Rivers, wetlands, and lakes also help make communities, from Miles City to Kalispell to Bozeman, world-class destinations for fishing, hunting, skiing, and a host of other outdoor activities that account for more than $5.8 billion in consumer spending every year and more than 64,000 jobs and $400 million in state and local tax revenue.

Some may think that this rule will broaden the reach of EPA regulations – but that's simply not the case. The proposed rule does not protect any new types of waters, nor does it broaden the historical coverage of the Clean Water Act. In fact, the rule maintains existing exemptions for the agricultural activities that farmers count on. Along with the proposal, we recently worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand exemptions to include 56 conservation practices that benefit land and water resources.

Speak up on proposal

But to get this rule right, we need everyone to be part of the conversation. We're holding discussions around the country and gathering input to help shape the final rule. The people of Montana have made a lot of progress over the last four decades. Together, we’ve reduced pollution from large industrial sources. We’ve made huge investments in revitalizing watersheds impacted by historic mining activity. Cities and towns have worked hard to clean up riverfronts and to make them focal points for redevelopment.

But we still have a ways to go. We need to do what we can to clear the way for the Clean Water Act to do its job. This rule helps secure the wealth we derive from Montana’s waters — upstream and downstream — so our children's children can enjoy the same treasured places we enjoy today.

Shaun McGrath is EPA regional administrator in Denver.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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