Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to undermine the efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers as the two federal agencies seek to clarify which waters should be protected under the Clean Water Act and which waters should not be regulated.
In the face of an aggressive lobbying campaign from opponents of the so-called Waters of the United States rule the EPA and the Corps have drafted for public review, the House took up the “anti-government” torch and carried through its chambers in a vote that is largely symbolic, yet wholly troubling. Here’s the gist of this situation, and as anglers, it falls to us to put our politics aside and instead focus on what’s best for our fish—and our fishing, today and for generations to come:
When the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, it protected from unpermitted development the “Waters of the United States,” and those waters included headwater streams, wetlands and other naturally occurring waters—even those intermittent and ephemeral streams that run dry at certain times of the year, but are hugely important for spawning and rearing for trout and salmon.
In the 2000s, two politically charged Supreme Court cases removed those small waters from beneath the Clean Water Act umbrella—industry and agricultural users were of the mind that these waters shouldn’t be protected because they were not navigable, one of the stipulations that granted protections to watersheds under the Clean Water Act. The court instructed the EPA and the Corps to scientifically prove the connection between these small headwater streams and the navigable waters they feed. The draft rule that both agencies crafted—and the rule that is now open to public review and comment—proves that small waters do eventually become big waters, navigable waters.
In short, the EPA and the Corps are doing exactly as they were instructed by the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, Congress is subject to the misguided influence—and likely the money behind it—from powerful industry and agricultural lobbies. The name of the bill that would forbid the EPA and the Corps from continuing with their rulemaking process is but a clue to the power and money behind the bill—it’s called the Waters of the United States Regulatory Overreach Protection Act of 2014. Nothing gets the foam-at-the-mouthers all worked up like a little political sloganeering in a bill that likely won’t get a hearing in the Senate and, frankly, is about ironic as you can get.
Who’s guilty of overreach? The EPA and the Corps for following the instructions of the Supreme Court? Or Congress, for trying to stop the agencies’ standard rulemaking process by essentially legislating instructions to a pair of executive branch entities?
It’s simple, really. It’s politics. Industry doesn’t want the regulatory oversight when it comes to development in wetlands and headwaters streams, and the agricultural lobby is worried that this will somehow evolve into a rule that regulates every farm ditch, pond and mud puddle on private property (despite the fact that the rule specifically excludes such waters from oversight).
But for anglers, this fight is getting personal. As Field & Stream’s Bob Marshall pointed out recently in his “Conservationist” post, many in Congress claim to support the interests of sportsmen, only to continually vote against the important issues that not only preserve fish and game habitat, but also protect our opportunity. If you think trying to make sure the government doesn’t protect prairie potholes under the Clean Water Act isn’t an attack on your waterfowl hunting opportunities, think again. If you think trying to ensure that headwater streams aren’t protected by the Clean Water Act doesn’t have a direct impact on your fishing, think again.
Fishing alone in this country is worth about $48 billion to the national economy. Outdoor recreation, in its entirety, contributes $200 billion. We have the clout. Now we need to use it. Put your politics aside for a minute and think about this issue pragmatically. Water is perhaps the most important natural resource our country possesses. It’s vital for our fish and game, and for our hunting and fishing. What’s more, its cleanliness is vital for everyone who turns on a tap downstream. Protecting the sources of nation’s waters is elementary, no matter what political party to subscribe to.
Comment on the rule, and tell Congress to quit playing politics with clean water.