A bipartisan bill in the House of Representatives would restore Clean Water Act protections to all waters, extending federal jurisdiction by EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers beyond their current ability to regulate only waters deemed “navigable.”
House Resolution 5088 would reverse U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 that left about 20% of the nation's 100 million acres of wetlands and lakes, intermittently flowing streams, and wetlands adjacent to those streams unprotected by the landmark 1972 legislation. The rulings reduced the authority of the law to regulate waterways, complicating the permitting process for communities and developers.
Reps. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), and John Dingell (D-Mich.) introduced “America's Commitment to Clean Water Act.”
“Our key issue is maintaining the exemption for wastewater treatment systems, which often include lagoons and bodies of water that could be considered a water of the U.S.,” explains Pat Sinicropi, director of legislative affairs for the 300-member National Association of Clean Water Agencies. “Our systems are permitted anyway for the most part, so this bill won't change the permitting process for wastewater treatment agencies.”
The bill would exempt existing treatment systems, including ponds and lagoons.
Tim Williams, managing director of government affairs at the Water Environment Federation (WEF), says WEF member concerns are the status of manmade wetlands used for wastewater treatment and the status of groundwater — neither of which is covered by the Section 404 permit, which prohibits the discharge of dredge or fill material into waters, including special aquatic sites such as wetlands.
Opposition is coming mostly from the agricultural community, home builders, and construction groups.
“Some critics claim that it will result in permitting delays, but supporters point out that the current situation has also caused delays in addition to putting many more streams and wetlands out of the reach of regulatory protection,” Williams says.
“The Supreme Court has greatly limited the scope of the act and greatly confused the application of existing law,” says Oberstar, who in 1972 was a staff assistant to Minnesota Rep. John Blatnik, one of the Clean Water Act's chief authors.
Oberstar expects to begin committee work on the bill before June. It has been referred to the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. A similar bill is expected to be considered by the full Senate this summer.