Back in the early 1970s, two-thirds of the nation’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters were considered unsafe for fishing or swimming. Untreated sewage and industrial waste were routinely dumped into waterways, and oil-fouled rivers occasionally burst into flames.
Fast-forward to 2018. Today, thanks to the Clean Water Act, our waters have become safer for swimming, fishing and drinking. But not every American experiences these benefits equally. Too many people – especially in low-income rural and urban communities and communities of color – still live without clean water, a basic human need.
From the industrial Midwest to remote farming communities in Alabama, some 63 million Americans – one in five – have been exposed to unsafe drinking water in the last decade. We have more work to do.
Yet instead of stepping up efforts to safeguard water, the Trump administration recently proposed limiting the reach of Clean Water Act protections. This would allow additional pollution to threaten our freshwater streams and rivers, which provide drinking water to one in three Americans.
President Donald Trump’s proposal would slash protections for headwater streams and wetlands that supply and filter the water that eventually finds its way to your tap.
The quality of our drinking water will suffer, requiring more treatment for human consumption. More treatment means water bills will likely increase in cost, an expense that will hurt low-income families that are already struggling to pay their bills.
At issue is a dispute over a definition. The Clean Water Act made it illegal to destroy or discharge pollution into “waters of the United States” without a permit. But the definition of “waters of the United States” has been debated for nearly half a century, including three inconclusive rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court.
So, at the request of many stakeholders, the Obama administration promulgated the Clean Water Rule in 2015 to clarify which waters deserve protection. The rule was based on extensive scientific study, hundreds of public meetings, and more than a million comments.
It takes a comprehensive approach to ensuring clean water, by protecting tributaries that flow into larger rivers and bays. After all, as The Washington Post has observed, “large bodies of water are only as good as the water that feeds them.”
This approach has proven popular: A 2015 poll found that 80 percent of American voters supported the Clean Water Rule.
In contrast, the proposal advanced by the Trump administration is based on an extremely narrow interpretation of the act’s jurisdiction. Trump’s rule excludes many bodies of water – including ephemeral streams and so called isolated wetlands – from protection. Safeguards for these upstream water sources are critical if we want to continue to improve the health of our nation’s rivers and waterways.
The choice is clear. We can protect and build on the success of the Clean Water Act, and finally deliver on its promise to provide clean, safe, affordable water to all Americans. Or we can turn back the clock to a time when all Americans drank, swam and fished at their own risk. Let’s take a stand for our most precious resource: clean water.
Nicole Silk is the president and CEO of River Network, a nonprofit organization with headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, that empowers local water champions nationwide. This column was written for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.