The Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently announced a proposed rule to clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act as it relates to wetlands and other important watershed features.
This long overdue rulemaking to define “waters of the U.S.” responds to confusion created in a muddled Supreme Court ruling back in 2006. In Rapanos v. United States, the justices split three ways in their interpretation of the law.
As is the case these days with virtually anything the EPA does, the announcement was instantly condemned as overreach by a number of Republican lawmakers — along with the special interests that have been benefitting from the confusion.
Before my fellow Republicans start down the path of trying to block this rule, there are a few considerations that, in the interest of prudence and fiscal sanity, they should be mindful of.
First of all, this rule does not break new ground. For more than 30 years the Clean Water Act was clearly interpreted by Congress, the courts and the administrations of every president since its enactment, to include all of our nation’s important surface waters.
Even with that clear understanding by the agencies charged with administering the law, the nation still lost wetlands at a rate of 60,000 acres per year. Since Rapanos, the rate of wetlands loss has averaged more than 80,000 acres per year.
Secondly, the notion that this proposed rule infringes on private property rights and represents some kind of “land grab” just doesn’t hold water. The Clean Water Act protects people’s rights and their property.
President Ronald Reagan perhaps said it best when, speaking of the Clean Water Act and other landmark environmental laws, he noted that: “Many laws protecting environmental quality have promoted liberty by securing property against the destructive trespass of pollution.”
What Reagan so effectively captured in that comment is the interconnected nature of resources like water and air. What happens upstream in a watershed directly impacts all of the people who live, work and play downstream.
Wetlands trap, store, filter and slowly release storm water. They protect downstream property owners from pollution, flooding and even drought. If I pave over a wetland to build a strip mall I remove that protection and those downstream bear the consequences. It is indeed a trespass.
An equally important consideration, one that is too often overlooked, is how critical wetlands are to the nation’s fiscal health — and to American taxpayers.
Wetlands, along with other vital watershed features, protect water quality, reduce flooding, replenish aquifers and maintain stream flow. Best of all, they provide these services for free. When wetlands are lost to development, so too are the free services they once provided.
This inevitably leads to costly infrastructure projects, which include dams, levees, diversion channels, storm sewers,and sewage treatment plant upgrades, to replace those lost services.
Not only are taxpayers on the hook for the initial construction of this infrastructure, but for maintaining it over time. It is a budget obligation and a taxpayer burden that never goes away — not for us, not for our children, not for our grandchildren, not for any subsequent generation.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.