Protecting America’s Waterways: Good Policy, Good Politics

By Shelley Vinyard
Regional Program Director

From the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes to the Colorado River and all the smaller rivers, lakes and streams in between, America’s waterways are incredibly popular, irreplaceable treasures. Furthermore, protecting our water from pollution consistently polls as one of the most important environmental issues in America.

And yet too many of our waterways are still too polluted. Thanks to the significant influence of developers, Big Agribusiness, Big Oil, and other polluters on our elected officials, there is a major rift between the public’s support for protecting our waterways and decision-makers’ appetite to enact and enforce policies that do so.

The Clean Water Act, one of our nation’s landmark environmental laws, was passed forty years ago this year, after the citizens around the country protested massive  water pollution problems and demanded action. Its original goal was to clean up all pollution in America’s waterways by 1985—a goal which we are still far from reaching. In fact, in 2010 226 million pounds of toxic pollution were dumped into our waterways nationwide.

In the last decade the Clean Water Act has been weakened  as a result of two polluter-driven Supreme Court decisions. These decisions have  left 20 million acres of wetlands, 117 million Americans’ drinking water, and nearly 60 percent of America’s streams—roughly 2.4 million stream miles, including many that flow into large water bodies—at  risk of more pollution.

We’ve been working to restore these protections to our waterways since the very first Supreme Court decision in 2001. We believe doing so is both good policy and good politics. That’s why Environment America teamed up with American Rivers and Earthjustice to commission a poll of citizens in Ohio and Colorado to test just how much people care about restoring protections to their local waterways. The results are quite interesting, and demonstrate just how important it is to take steps now to stand up for clean water. Some of the major findings include:

  1. There is extensive support in Colorado and Ohio for restoring clean water protections. Not only is this support more intense than the opposition, it is broadly shared across party lines.
  2. Supporting clean water protections is a clear political plus for both Congress and the President.
  3. Messages in support of the proposal to restore clean water protections are much stronger than opposition messages.

(The full summary of the poll’s findings can be found here.) 

Thankfully, very soon President Obama is expected to take the first major step in decades to protect our waters by setting new guidelines to help restore protections to these smaller streams, tributaries, lakes and wetlands. The environmental community has already generated support from hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens, nearly 500 local elected officials, hundreds of sportsmen organizations, and many others. This Clean Water Act guidance will help prevent pollution from flowing into many waterways—both large and small—across the country. And Environment America will do everything to defend and celebrate this historic step.