EPA Working to Preserve Our Waters

  • Posted by Dawn Merritt

    By Karl Brooks, Regional Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency 

    Over the past decade, interpretations of court rulings have caused confusion about which waters are protected from pollution and development. As a result, many important waters now lack clear protection under the law, and businesses and regulators face uncertainty and delay.

    On April 27, 2011, proposed guidance by EPA and the Army Corps was released that clarifies where the Clean Water Act applies nationwide. This guidance will help restore protection of critical waters and provide clearer, less burdensome guidelines for determining which water bodies we can keep safe from pollution.

    EPA believes that protection of Midwest wetlands and streams is more important than ever as we experience more pronounced effects from flooding, climate change, and habitat loss. We are fortunate to have a vast network of wetlands and streams in the Midwest that support the great Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. We are blessed with a great diversity of lakes, ponds, rivers, streams and wetlands: from small prairie potholes in Iowa to swamps in the Missouri Bootheel; from salt lakes to Lake of the Ozarks; from small seasonal streams to the largest river in the country.

    EPA and the Army Corps have worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ensure that concerns raised by farmers and the agricultural industry have been addressed in the proposed guidance to clarify water regulations. There are no changes to the existing agriculture exemptions.

    These exemptions continue to apply to: agricultural stormwater discharges and return flows from irrigated agriculture; normal, ongoing agricultural and ranching activities; normal activities related to construction and maintenance of irrigation ditches and drainage ditches; and normal activities associated with construction or maintenance of farm, forest, and temporary mining roads.

    In addition, the proposed guidance does not impact the following water bodies, which often are associated with agricultural activities: non-tidal drainage and irrigation ditches not connected to a jurisdictional water; artificially irrigated areas that would revert to upland if irrigation stops; artificial lakes or ponds used for purposes such as stock watering; artificial ornamental waters created for primarily aesthetic reasons; and water-filled depressions created as a result of construction activity.

    This guidance does not affect the regulatory exclusions from coverage under the CWA for waste treatment systems and prior converted cropland, or practices for identifying waste treatment systems and prior converted cropland.

    The proposed guidance clarifies protection for streams that flow long distances before reaching traditionally navigable waters, small streams, streams that flow for only part of the year, and many wetlands and ponds that cumulatively affect the health of the nation’s navigable waters. These are the waters that help retain floodwaters that might otherwise flood valuable cropland and that help ensure a safe supply of water for drinking, irrigation, and livestock watering.

    Farmers benefit when healthy wetlands and streams are able to trap and store floodwaters so that fields and crops are not damaged or destroyed during floods. Farmers and ranchers depend on clean water for stock watering to help ensure healthy livestock and irrigation to help ensure a safe food supply. In fact, 31 percent of all surface freshwater withdrawals in the U.S. are for irrigation. In addition, farmers benefit when drinking water is clean and safe to drink, without need for expensive treatment.

    The Clean Water Act is one of the Nation’s most effective environmental laws, calling for the federal government, states and tribes to work together to achieve its goals. Since its enactment in 1972, the condition of rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands, and coastal waters across the country has dramatically improved.  

    As part of EPA’s responsibilities under the CWA, EPA is committed to accelerating the reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus to our waters. For example, I am working closely with Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources Director Roger Lande on identifying measures to reduce nutrient loadings to Iowa waters. This type of pollution has the potential to become one of the costliest and the most challenging environmental problems we face.

    If we are to make real progress, it is imperative that EPA, USDA, state and local officials and other partners continue to work together to identify meaningful and measurable reductions in water pollution.

    A well informed and engaged public is essential to address our clean water challenges. We are working together to protect water, air and land and support farmers and ranchers to remain profitable and successful in their efforts to feed American families.

    You can visit our Web site to review the proposed guidance and submit comments through July 1, 2011: http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/guidance/wetlands/CWAwaters.cfm. The draft guidance will be open for public comment to allow all stakeholders to provide input and feedback before it is finalized.

    Karl Brooks is the EPA Regional Administrator for Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and nine tribal nations.

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