New U.S. Water Rule is Crucial for Clean Drinking Water and Resilience to Droughts and Floods

An aerial view of the Prairie Pothole Region, near Wing, North Dakota.  A new U.S. clean water rule protects prairie potholes and other freshwater ecosystems. Credit: Jim Ringelman, Ducks Unlimited/courtesy US Department of Agriculture.
An aerial view of the Prairie Pothole Region, near Wing, North Dakota. A new U.S. clean water rule protects prairie potholes and other freshwater ecosystems. Credit: Jim Ringelman, Ducks Unlimited/courtesy US Department of Agriculture.

It took nearly a decade, but finally the waters left terribly muddied by two U.S. Supreme Court cases have gotten a good bit clearer.

This week, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers issued a new rule clarifying which of the nation’s streams and wetlands come under the protections of the federal Clean Water Act.

Without this rule, some 117 million people – about one in three Americans – would continue to get drinking water from streams that lacked clear protection from pollution and degradation. And large populations of fish and wildlife would remain at risk of losing critical habitat.

The need for this clarification arose in large part from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in the Rapanos-Carabell case, named for the two petitioners who each had sought to develop wetland areas on their Michigan properties – one for a shopping center in Midland, the other for condominiums north of Detroit.

In a mixed ruling, the four conservative justices ruled that the Clean Water Act applies only to “permanent, standing or continuously flowing” bodies of water, casting aside the protection of ecologically crucial seasonal and ephemeral wetlands and streams that are often hydrologically connected to flowing waters downstream.

Four other justices disagreed with this hydro-illogical interpretation and sided with sound science and the overall intent of the Clean Water Act to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

It was Justice Anthony Kennedy, however, who, in a separate opinion, introduced the confusing requirement that only streams and wetlands for which a “significant nexus” with navigable waters can be shown to exist —> Read More

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