By Susan Heathcote, Water Program Director, Iowa Environmental Council
Iowans value clean water. From the small creeks, ponds and wetlands on the farm and the edge of town where our children play and explore nature to the larger rivers and lakes where our families head on the weekends to fish, swim and boat – clean water is important to our quality of life and a healthier Iowa.
In response to our members’ concerns, improving the quality of Iowa’s rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands has been a top priority for the Iowa Environmental Council since the Council was founded nearly 20 years ago. One of our most important tools for cleaning up polluted waters and preventing new pollution is the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) that was passed by Congress in 1972.
The purpose of the CWA is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters. Over the past 40 years, the CWA has resulted in dramatic improvements in the Nation’s water quality through the construction of modern wastewater treatment facilities to reduce sewage and industrial waste that had previously been discharged directly to waterways.
Over the past 10 years, the Iowa Environmental Council and our partners, working with state agencies and the legislature, have further strengthened Iowa’s implementation and enforcement of the CWA. Two examples are rules adopted in 2006 that significantly increase protection of rivers and streams for recreation and aquatic life; and rules adopted in 2010 to protect high quality waters from new pollution.
The result has been significant new investment in cleaner water that benefits our communities, businesses, public health and quality of life.
While Iowa has made progress, we still have much work to do to meet the clean water expectations of the public.
Last year, for example, nitrate pollution coming mostly from fertilizer applied to farm fields in the watersheds of the Cedar, Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers made its way from small headwater streams in Northern Iowa and Southern Minnesota downstream to the Cities of Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. The result was record high nitrate levels that threatened the safety of the drinking water supply in Iowa’s two largest cities.
In addition, Iowans traveling to their local lakes for a weekend retreat too often find a sign warning them to stay out of the water due to the presence of cyano-toxins from algae blooms or dangerous bacteria that make the water unsafe for swimming. Last summer, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources posted 106 warnings for dangerous levels of bacteria and 24 warnings of cyano-toxins at public beaches in Iowa.
Many of the pollutants that affect the quality of our drinking water and swimming beaches come from far upstream, in some cases even crossing state borders. Therefore a strong CWA that protects the quality of small headwater streams that feed downstream rivers and lakes is needed for us to continue to make progress toward our clean water goals.
Prior to 2001, virtually all streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands were considered “Waters of the U.S.” and were therefore covered under the Clean Water Act. However, in recent years, two U. S. Supreme Court rulings have resulted in confusion over whether some intermittent headwater streams and certain wetlands should be protected.
To end this confusion, and restore CWA protections to these critical water bodies, the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers have proposed new rules that clarify existing law and ensure the “Waters of the U.S.” designation extends to headwater streams that flow into larger rivers and to wetlands within the floodplain adjacent to these rivers.
The proposed rules also clarify which waters are not considered “Waters of the U.S.”, including streams that do not contribute flow to downstream waters, agricultural drainage tiles, irrigation ditches, waste treatment lagoons, groundwater, and agricultural stormwater discharges.
Prior to releasing the proposed rule, EPA and the Army Corps worked closely with the agricultural community and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to understand and address farmer concerns. The proposed rules leave in place the current exemptions from CWA permits for normal farming, ranching and forestry practices; including plowing, seeding, cultivation, minor drainage, harvesting, drainage ditch maintenance and upland soil and water conservation practices.
Further, in response to agriculture’s concern about the regulatory burden when permits are needed for some conservation practices, EPA is specifying 56 agricultural conservation practices that will be specifically exempted from CWA permitting requirements.
Iowans who drink from or swim in Iowa waters; parents whose children play in the local creek; sportsmen and anglers who hunt and fish; and nature lovers who paddle, hike and bike along or in Iowa waters need to publically support these new rules. Iowans who care about clean water can’t afford to sit on the sidelines and let some interest groups misstate the purpose and effect of this rule and determine which waters are protected and which waters can be destroyed or polluted.
With strong public support and action, the proposed rule will strengthen the Clean Water Act’s legal and scientific foundation and protect the quality and integrity of the critically important streams and wetlands that feed into our rivers and lakes – thus helping to ensure a clean water future for Iowa.
Additional information on the Waters of the US Rule can be found on the EPA webpage: http://www.epa.gov/uswaters
Comments on the Waters of the US Proposed Rule can be submitted at the Federal Register via the e-Rulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. The direct link to the comment page for this rule is http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=EPA-HQ-OW-2011-0880. Comments must be submitted by Oct. 20, 2014. (note: today the website still has the July 21st deadline, but EPA has announced a 91 day extension till Oct. 20th.)