Local river users support clean water protections
Summit Daily News
As the public comment period comes to a close for the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed guidance on determining whether a waterway is protected by the Clean Water Act, kayakers, conservationists and sportsmen from across the state gathered earlier this week to demonstrate what groups considered “broad-based support” for EPA’s efforts, hand-delivering to EPA officials 23,887 comment postcards, photo petitions, letters, and stacks of emails in support of EPA action to keep the state’s waterways clean.
Over the past decade, interpretations of Supreme Court rulings have left murky which Colorado waterways are fully protected under the Clean Water Act’s term “U.S. waterway” by removing some critical types of waters from federal protection. It has caused confusion and uncertainty for regulators and businesses about which waters and wetlands are actually protected under the Clean Water Act.
Congress enacted the law “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” It protects waterways against the effects of a vast array of potential pollution – including oil spills and direct pipe discharges – as well as removal of natural fixes to pollution, such as wetlands.
Supreme Court rulings have put intermittent and ephemeral streams at risk, said David Nickum of Trout Unlimited, which includes most of Colorado’s waterways. In their rulings, judges narrowed protection to “navigable” waterways, under which classification a section of the Colorado River and a small portion of the Navajo Reservoir are the only protected waters in the state, Nickum said. There isn’t necessarily a provision for navigable waterways for commercial rafts, he added.
It’s an extreme position, Nickum said, adding, “It’s the wrong direction to be moving and we don’t believe Congress intended (the law to read) that way.”
To respond to the call for clarity, the federal EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have developed draft guidance for determining whether a waterway, water body, or wetland is protected by the Clean Water Act.
Jim Martin, EPA’s regional administrator in Denver, said the uncertainty means his staff can spend hours determining if they can step in during a case of a spill, when they’d rather be cleaning them up and preventing them. According to the Associated Press, the American Farm Bureau Federation says it’s concerned farmers and ranchers will be saddled with more regulations, but Martin says stock ponds and irrigated land are exempt.
Pam Kiely of Environment Colorado estimated that a minimum of 450 Summit County residents took the time to support the draft guidance revisions.
Nickum said the reaffirmation of protection affects critical tributaries for drinking water, but it also affects downstream fisheries and recreational waterways – including intermittent, ephemeral or headwater streams.
In Colorado, these types of waterways account for 62 percent of the total river miles that feed into public drinking supplies and supports more than 3.7 million Coloradans, according to Environment Colorado. Essentially, the new guidance puts 30 years of historic protection back in “good standing,” Nickum said.
Jim Martin, EPA’s regional administrator in Denver, echoed support for protecting waters that contribute to the state’s economic vitality.
“The guidance we are proposing will help protect the streams and wetlands that keep Colorado’s watersheds, and the state’s multi-billion dollar recreational economy, healthy,” he said. “A fundamental part of that plan is reaffirming the clear application of the Clean Water Act.”
The draft guidance also reaffirms protection for wetlands that filter pollution and help protect communities from flooding – for instance, when developers seek to fill wetlands and mitigate their absence elsewhere.
The deadline to comment on the draft revisions is Sunday.
The full text of the newly proposed guidance, with info on how to comment, can be found at http://1.usa.gov/aJijoA.
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