Montana’s rivers, streams, lakes, and wetlands are an unmatched natural resource. Our clean, cool waters support an abundance of fish and wildlife, they provide us with clean drinking water, and they give us a place to escape the heat on these August afternoons.
Clean, healthy rivers and streams are also good for our bottom line. A big part of Montana’s multi-billion dollar outdoor economy depends on fishing, rafting, and other water-based activities. Western Montana great rivers and streams support a fishery resource that draws anglers from all over the world. In Eastern Montana, the wetlands of the Prairie Pothole region provide crucial habitat for waterfowl and other birds, bringing hunters and birdwatchers – and their money – into rural communities every fall.
Montana’s waters are clean and healthy in no small part because of the Clean Water Act. This landmark law was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1972. The Clean Water Act is a good example of government done right: by setting reasonable standards, and providing flexible ways to meet them, the law has balanced development and water quality. Over the last four decades the Clean Water Act has dramatically improved the health of our nation’s waterways without slowing down farming, construction, or other important economic activities. That’s a fact proven by the best scientific and economic data, and confirmed by what we see all around us.
Unfortunately, two contentious Supreme Court decisions in the early 2000s clouded the waters about exactly which waters were protected by the Clean Water Act. The confusion that resulted from these decisions has made life difficult for water users, developers, and conservationists. Uncertainty over the law has meant inconsistent application of the rules, with adverse consequences for rivers, lakes, and other waters. Wetlands in particular have taken a hit: between 2004 -2009, wetlands were destroyed at 140 percent of the rate of the previous six years – the first time since the 1980s that we’ve seen an increase in the loss of wetlands.
After years of work, the EPA and Corps of Engineers have rolled out a proposal to clear up the confusion triggered by the Court’s rulings. Their proposed “Waters of the US” rule would specifically define which water bodies are covered by the Clean Water Act - and which are not.
The new rule would clearly state that Montana’s headwater streams and floodplain lakes and wetlands are under the Clean Water Act’s protection. Of course this is good for those of us who fish and hunt these waters. At the same time, keeping these upstream tributaries healthy will save expense and hassle later for all downstream water users. It’s common sense, borne out by good science, that the law should apply to these waters.
In addition to defining protections for headwaters streams and wetlands, the new rule clarifies reasonable exemptions from the Clean Water Act. For the first time ever, this rule expressly excludes certain types of waters from the Clean Water Act, providing increased clarity to landowners and developers. In addition, the rule clearly states that all of the activities that are currently exempt from the law - like everyday farming and ranching practices - would remain so.
Of course, some people are already criticizing the proposed rule – without having read it, apparently, based on what they’re saying. Government isn’t getting a lot right these days, and the EPA is always an easy target. But we shouldn’t get distracted by hot political rhetoric. This new water rule make sense for our quality of life, our outdoor economy, and our natural environment. Montanans, and Montana’s leaders, should support protecting all of Montana’s waters.