Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Clean Water Action Plan: Then and Now

     “Don’t panic and carry a towel”
                Douglas Adams, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

In February of 1998 the Clinton Administration announced that it would implement a Clean Water Action Plan
The plan encompassed:

New Pollution Challenges. 40 percent of waterways surveyed were still too polluted for fishing and swimming. The largest remaining  challenge was reducing “nonpoint” pollution (i.e., runoff from farms, city streets and other sources). A Second Generation of Clean Water Protection. The action plan would chart a new course emphasizing collaborative strategies built around     watersheds and the communities they sustain.

Clean Water, Healthy Communities. The action plan supported efforts by states and communities to prevent the contamination of beaches, fish and drinking water sources. Incentives for Conservation. It supported expanded private     conservation efforts through incentive programs such as the Farm Bill. 

Community-Based Planning. The action plan encouraged states and  communities to work with the public and all affected stakeholders to identify priorities and cost-effective cleanup strategies.

In October of 2009 U.S. EPA announced that is would implement a Clean Water Action Plan: Clean Water Action Plan October 15, 2009

The plan was announced by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson at at a hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee: The plan was announced around the time that a series of articles was initiated by the New York Times: Toxic Waters:  A Series about the Worsening Pollution in American Waters and Regulators’ Response which described many of the ongoing challenges to providing clean water and a safe environment.

The initial Obama Administration plan focused on enforcement.  It stated that the  regulated universe has expanded from the roughly 100,000 traditional point sources to nearly one million far more dispersed sources such as animal feeding operations and storm water runoff (i.e., nonpoint source).  EPA would ensure that states would protect water quality and consistently apply the law. EPA would improve transparency and accountability by providing more complete, accurate and timely information to both regulators and the public, and would enlist an informed public as a powerful ally to press for stronger performance and accountability from the regulated community.

EPA expanded on the initial proposal by holding a conference on clean water in the spring and publishing a “Coming Together for Clean Water” discussion strategy on its website.  The public is invited to comment on the strategy between now and September 17, 2010.

The strategy states that recent surveys have found nutrient pollution, excess sedimentation and degradation of shoreline vegetation affects upwards of 50% of the nation’s lakes and streams.  The main national sources of water degradation are agriculture, stormwater runoff, habitat, hydrology and landscape modifications, municipal wastewater and air deposition.

Recommended actions include

Systemically assess the Nation’s waters to provide a baseline for measuring progress EPA will pull together available information, surveys and studies to identify, classify and track the state of the nation’s waters.
Increase Focus on Protection of Healthy Waters – EPA will identify and support protection of healthy (not impaired) waters and propose changes to the federal water quality standard regulations to strengthen anti-degradation provisions.
Enhance EPA’s ability to restore degraded waters – EPA will undertake a number of actions to fix impaired waters including partnering with other federal agencies, using market-based tools, and developing watershed-based nonpoint source plans.
Reduce pollution entering the nation’s waters – EPA will strengthen the National Point Source Elimination System (NPDES/point sources regulatory program) by expanding stormwater permitting, extending regulations to address animal feedlot operations (AFO), and other actions.
Enhance Watershed Resiliency and Revitalize Communities – EPA will undertake a number of activities including promoting green infrastructure and new technology, encouraging a variety of integrated water management approaches and ensuring climate resiliency of drinking water and wastewater

So what’s changed?

The problems keep growing and U.S. EPA, along with everyone else (states, tribes, local government etc.), are unable to keep up.  This is not the fault of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  The underlying problem is in part that Congress has not provided the agency or anyone else with the tools to address the current problems plaguing the Nation’s waters.   This is because there is no consensus nationally that 1) there is a problem to solve or 2) how to solve it. Nonpoint source runoff is the chief source of degradation of the Nation’s waters and the Clean Water Act is a point source statute designed to regulate discharges at the end of a pipe or at a specific fill site. Meanwhile states are barely keeping up with existing programs to protect water and the environment.  Overall state budgets are expected to continue to shrink through 2012 and maybe into 2013 and 2014.  All the EPA plans going back to 1998 anticipate that the states will undertake most of the work required to improve the Nation’s waters.

What is the solution?

First, comment on the Draft Clean Water Strategy.  Comments can help shape future policy. Second, help the public understand what is at stake and why it should be fixed. Third, despite dwindling resources and growing problems, in fact because of them—keep trying.  The stakes are too high to fail.

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