Don't Let Misinformation Prevail Over Clean Water

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on a bill known as H.R. 5078, "Waters of the United States Regulatory Overreach Protection Act of 2014." This bill threatens to muddy the waters for America's wetlands and undermine the Clean Water Act.

The bill would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from moving forward with an important rule that clarifies which waters, and in particular wetlands, fall under the protection of the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act aims to prevent activities that harm or pollute the nation's rivers, streams, lakes and coastal waters.

America's wetlands are critical for our livelihood. Rainfall percolates from our wetlands to aquifers to recharge our water supply. Wetlands improve water quality by filtering out pollutants. Wetlands buffer against flooding and provide crucial habitat for birds and other wildlife. All of these benefits support local economies.

But these marshy wonderlands are being destroyed faster than they can be restored. A recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests that for every acre gained through wetlands restoration, two acres are lost in coastal watersheds. The pace of wetland destruction in the United States has accelerated over the last decade. With years of work and billions of dollars invested in restoring America's Everglades and other wetlands across the United States, preserving our remaining wetlands must be a priority.

For the Clean Water Act to apply, the threshold question to first ask is what constitutes a water body protected under the law. Unfortunately, that is where things get murky. Usually the United States Supreme Court gives clear guidance on how to interpret a law. But two Supreme Court cases in the last decade made it more confusing as to what water body is protected or not under the Clean Water Act. As a result, there is a lack of consistency among courts, and a corresponding lack of certainty for anyone who has anything to do with wetland permitting. This includes developers, farmers, private landowners, and environmentalists.

The EPA's proposed rule is important to clarify what the courts cannot. In fact, requests for this rulemaking were made from the agricultural community, developers, state, local, and tribal governments, and a full cast from the NGO community.

But H.R. 5078 would put a stop to this crucial rulemaking.

Spawned from a raucous misinformation campaign, the bill's opposition to the rule is based on propaganda that the rule will regulate isolated ditches and a laundry list of places not previously regulated.

This is simply not true.

The proposed rule does not change the exemptions that farmers and ranchers already enjoy, infringe on property rights, or apply in cases when rainfall saturates lawns and fields. The proposed rule expressly exempts waste treatment ponds, upland ditches, artificial lakes and ornamental lagoons from regulation.

The misinformation is so widespread that the EPA had to create a website called "Ditch the Myth" to explain what the rule does and does not do. But the distortion of the truth is still rampant and rabid in public meetings, industry conferences, and anywhere within earshot of a politician.

It is particularly jarring that the bill's sponsor, Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL) is a representative of Florida. Florida has lost almost half of its historic wetlands. Nevertheless, the Sunshine State still brims with wetlands, and they are key to the state's economy and its residents. For example, the 13,000 acre Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Southwest Florida was once the site of the nation's largest Wood Stork nesting colony and has been a thriving eco-tourism business. However, loss of 80% of the most vital wetlands surrounding the property has resulted in a 90% drop in nesting productivity. Loss of wetlands led to a loss of birds which in turn has led to a loss of business.

Florida is also home to America's Everglades, which provide the water supply for nearly one in three Floridians and is an economic engine for the state.

If Rep. Southerland's H.R.5078 becomes law, all interests will continue to suffer from the current confusion over what waters the Clean Water Act protects. Meanwhile, we will see continued impacts to Florida's and our nation's wetlands and water quality. Ask your representative to protect America's wetlands and oppose H.R. 5078.