This week the Obama Administration committed to preserving one of this nation’s most valuable assets, and our public health, with an announcement that it would enact stronger pollution controls on millions of acres of wetlands and tens of thousands of miles of streams. CAP’s Jorge Madrid has the story.
Obama’s national Clean Water Framework “outlines a series of actions underway and planned across Federal agencies to ensure the integrity of the waters Americans rely on every day for drinking, swimming, and fishing, and that support farming, recreation, tourism and economic growth,” according to a press release by the administration. These actions could prevent the dumping of mining waste and the discharge of industrial pollutants to waters that feed swimming holes and drinking water supplies.
As part of the Administration’s actions, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. have developed draft guidance for determining whether a waterway, water body, or wetland is protected by the Clean Water Act. This much needed clarification comes after two (2001, 2006) Supreme Court decisions that left uncertain which waterways were protected under the law and left millions of acres of wetlands and thousands of miles of streams open to development and pollution.
These actions could not come sooner. In the 20th century alone nearly one-third of the Gulf’s wetlands were lost in large part to development like damming and dredging, as well as pollution runoff from agriculture, oil refineries, and heavy manufacturing along the Mississippi River. That’s the equivalent of a football-field-sized land mass every 38 minutes. Without large-scale restoration and protection the Gulf region is on track to lose a land mass the size of Rhode Island by 2050. Not to mention the 3,000 miles of beaches and wetlands that were contaminated by oil from the BP disaster.
Streams and wetlands provide crucial resources and commodities. For example, the wetlands of the Gulf’s Mississippi Delta are worth up to $47 billion in benefits every year, according to an analysis by Earth Economics. This includes natural services wetlands provide like flood protection (valued at $23.2 billion), water purification (up to $34,000 per acre), as well as hydrology, fishing, and recreation – not to mention a delicate ecosystem and home to thousands of species of birds, fish, and other living things.
A February report by the Center for American Progress also outlined the regional economic benefits and job creation potential of protecting and restoring wetlands in the Gulf Coast.
Of course the usual suspects are crying foul in response to these crucial public health protections. Republicans have made cutting EPA’s ability to protect our public health/ensure we have clean air and water one of their primary objectives in the 112th Congress. They are joined by the American Petroleum Institute and other groups that include livestock owners and home builders who have said the increased protections will impose an economic burden on them. But EPA chief Lisa Jackson says it will bring more predictability for businesses considering whether to develop in wetlands or other sensitive areas while ensuring that polluters are held accountable.
The New York Times called this action by the Administration “an important first step in restoring vital legal safeguards to wetlands and streams threatened by development and pollution.” With a year already passed since the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, both Congress and BP have been stagnant in accomplishing any solutions to protecting the Gulf’s wetlands, a critical national asset (although BP recently announced it will release $1 billion to begin restoration projects). This first step by the Obama is indeed an important step down a long road to protecting our delicate ecosystems, drinking water, and public health, and economy.
— By Jorge Madrid