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Need for EPA rule should be as clear as water

A view of Long Island Sound during sunrise

A view of Long Island Sound during sunrise at Sunken Meadow State Park in Kings Park on July 10, 2012. Photo Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

With Memorial Day behind us, summer has unofficially begun. And that means New Yorkers will flock to our beaches, rivers, and lakes.

New Yorkers run, bike, and fish along waters including the Hudson River, Great Lakes, and Long Island Sound all year long. But we welcome the warm weather by adding picnics, grilling, and paddling.

What's more, more than 11 million of us in the region rely on waterways like the Great Lakes for clean drinking water.

Our rivers and lakes are essential to our quality of life. That's why we should be doing everything we can to protect them. A rule signed just over a week ago by top federal officials in the Obama administration would ensure that our nation's Clean Water Act will do just that.

The rule will guarantee federal safeguards to the headwaters and streams that help keep the Hudson River and Long Island Sound clean. It will restore similar protections to more than 55 percent of streams that feed the drinking water sources for millions across our state. All told, the rule will protect the drinking water for one in three Americans, and represents the biggest step forward for clean water in more than a decade.

It's been a long time in the making. Because of a loophole created by a pair of polluter-driven lawsuits that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, nearly 2 million miles of streams across the country have lacked guaranteed coverage under the Clean Water Act for years. This includes 20 million acres of wetlands -- an area the size of South Carolina.

That means all too often developers built over our wetlands; oil companies, power plants, or meat processing plants dumped into our streams; and the feds couldn't stop them. In fact, according to an analysis by The New York Times, over a four-year period following the court decisions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had to drop 1,500 cases against polluters who were dumping into or otherwise harming these waters.

Following years of advocacy, the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last year proposed the Clean Water Rule to close the loophole once and for all. A broad coalition of advocates, farmers, mayors and small businesses has endorsed the measure. Last fall, more than 67,000 New Yorkers joined Americans across the country to submit more than 800,000 comments in favor of the rule.

We wish that were the whole story.

Agribusinesses, oil and gas companies, developers and others have waged a bitter campaign to keep the status quo. Their allies in Congress are working hard to assist them. The U.S. House has voted to block the Clean Water Rule multiple times, most recently late last month. In addition, Senate leaders have made clear they intend to block restored protections. And last week, the U.S. Senate Environment & Public Works committee voted to approve a bill sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) that would derail the Clean Water Rule. His legislation now heads to the Senate floor, where it would need 60 votes to pass.

We need New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand to publicly defend the rule and get their colleagues on board. Schumer and Gillibrand stand up against the polluters by being forceful advocates for clean water.

Heather Leibowitz is the director of Environment New York, a statewide citizen-based environmental advocacy organization.


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