Every Stream Counts

The Obama Administration's newly imposed clean water rule extends protection to 60 percent of the nation's streams as well as numerous wetlands. Many Republicans in Congress think the coverage is excessive even though those protected areas play a crucial national role. The streams and wetlands are instrumental in feeding major tributaries that supply drinking water to 117 million people, or one out of every three Americans. We cannot afford to have these smaller bodies of water polluted or dredged and filled.

If that isn't enough to justify regulation, these many seasonal streams and wetlands also store and recharge ground water. That imbues them with added importance, given the likelihood of fresh water shortages around the country in the not too distant future.

Critics of the regulation seem oblivious to the looming supply crunch. Instead, they protest that the rule -- administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- is a gross overreach that will damage the economy and abridge private property rights. It is asserted that small farmers will be unable to afford the cost of federal permits to utilize the seasonal streams, ponds and wetlands on their property in an environmentally sound way.

Leading the opposition to the clean water rule are Republican congressional lawmakers and conservative think tanks such as the Federalist Society. In deploring Washington's increased protection of freshwater resources, critics ignore the U.S. Government Accountability Office's recent survey of state water managers. The survey's findings were unsettling, especially if not promptly and substantively confronted. Forty-two out of 50 state water managers said localized shortages would be experienced in their respective jurisdictions in the next 10 to 20 years, even under average conditions. Moreover, in 24 of the states, managers warned that shortages would be regional in scope, while prolonged, widespread drought could conceivably bring the drinking water deficit to every corner of the land.

If these projected fresh water shortages cannot be substantially curbed, a severe blow to the economy appears inevitable. The cost of obtaining permits therefore seems a small price to pay for preservation of intermittent sources that store, recharge, purify, and add to the America's stressed fresh water inventory. Farmers, after all, need clean, fresh water as much as the rest of us, and in their case, for irrigation as well as ingestion purposes.

Ironically, some of the most vocal opponents to the clean water rule are lawmakers from regions that are most vulnerable to future water shortages because of arid conditions and rapid population growth. Cases in point are Arizona, Colorado and Utah where from 70 to 90 percent of the streams are seasonal and hence fall squarely within the purview of the clean water rule.

Some states complain that the federal government is usurping too much regulatory authority over their water resources. But how many states are taking the long view regarding future freshwater scarcity and addressing the challenge?

Washington needs to backstop.