Oil Spill Reminds Us of the Importance of Our Great Waters

As oil continues to flow into the Gulf of Mexico from the devastating BP spill, the connection between clean waters, communities, and healthy wildlife becomes clear. Images of oil soaked brown pelicans, fishermen with no fish to catch, and beachgoers sharing the sand with cleanup crews fill our newspapers and present us with the inescapable reality that something has gone terribly wrong in the Gulf. This ongoing threat to one of our nation’s great waters is not purely of environmental concern, but of social and economic concerns as well. Now more than ever, with serious damage to its fisheries and tourism industry, the Gulf of Mexico is in need of protection.

The Gulf of Mexico, however, is just one of many of our nation’s great waters that are in dire need of protection. From the Gulf of Mexico in the south to the Chesapeake Bay in the east, to the Great Lakes in the north, to the San Francisco Bay in the west, Americans depend upon these waters for clean drinking water, fishing, and recreation. These great waters are part of our regional and national identity, creating connections between people and their environment.

Over the past few months, a series of bills have been introduced by Congress that will authorize targeted funding to improve protection and restoration measures of eight different great waters across the country. Although each bill is tailored to address specific issues that affect each water body, from high levels of toxic contaminants polluting the Columbia River to sewage pollution from combined sewer overflows in Long Island Sound, the ultimate goal of these bills is to ensure clean, fishable, swimmable rivers and streams throughout the United States.

At the end of June, many of these great waters bills passed out of the Committee on Environment and Public Works in the Senate. Although most passed with no changes, Senator Cardin’s Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act (S. 1816) passed out of committee with a substitute amendment developed as a compromise between Senator Cardin (D-MD.) and Senator Inhofe (R-OK.)

One of the most critical changes to the bill is that it no longer codifies the Chesapeake Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), a calculation that determines the maximum pollutant level a body of water can have and still meet water quality standards under the Clean Water Act. Although the Environmental Protection Agency is still required to determine a TMDL for the Bay, the bar has been lowered for water quality standards for nutrient trading programs and state Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) because they are no longer based on the enforceable Bay TMDL.

Other weakening changes to the bill make state Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) optional and only allow EPA to take enforcement action against states that have actually submitted a WIP, creating a disincentive to submit one. The new language also takes away EPA’s authority to regulate nonpoint source agricultural runoff, one of the leading causes of water pollution, if the EPA takes over the state’s WIP.

As we are witnessing with the Gulf of Mexico, when one of these great bodies of water becomes severely polluted, the impacts are felt at every level. These bills represent a step forward for restoration plans across the country, to provide funding that will ensure that the rivers and streams we depend upon for clean water, fishing, and swimming are protected and restored.