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Clean Water Act

Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 to protect all "waters of the United States.” To this day, the Clean Water Act remains the primary tool used to protect our nation’s waters.

Elk in Lake, James AndersonUnfortunately for more than a decade, 20 million wetland acres and two million stream miles have been at increased risk of pollution and destruction following two convoluted Supreme Court rulings and subsequent agency guidance. This includes a major source of drinking water for one third of Americans, the headwaters and intermittent streams that comprises 60 percent of our nation's stream miles. With these streams at risk of pollution, so is our drinking water. These at-risk streams and wetlands are also home to countless fish and wildlife species.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a landmark rule clarifying longstanding Clean Water Act protections for many—but not all—streams, wetlands, and other waters that are important to fish and wildlife, our communities, and our economy. Called for by voices on all sides of the debate and the Supreme Court, this rule relies on the best scientific understanding of stream and wetland science. The rule promised to clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act, reinforce the Act’s legal and scientific foundations, provide greater long-term certainty for landowners, and enhance protection for America’s streams, wetlands, and other waters. Unfortunately some industry groups are determined to fight this change and continue polluting our streams and filling our wetlands.

The National Wildlife Federation advocates for preventing wetland and stream destruction and pollution through strong enforcement of the Clean Water Act. Since passage in 1972, the Clean Water Act has made great strides in protecting and restoring America's waters. A series of court cases and agency decisions threaten to reverse the unprecedented progress that was made over the previous 30 years. The National Wildlife Federation litigates, advocates, and works with federal, state, and local agencies to keep safeguards strong and protect our waters from development and population pressures.

Why Are These Waters in Jeopardy?

In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to protect all "waters of the United States." For 30 years, both the courts and the agencies responsible for administering the Act interpreted it to broadly protect our Nation's waters.

However, in two decisions, Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (2001) and Rapanos v. United States (2006), the Supreme Court ignored congressional intent and narrowly interpreted the scope of waters covered by the Act, putting in doubt pollution safeguards for many vital wetlands, lakes and streams.

After the decisions, the Bush administration's Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers excluded numerous waters from protection and placed unnecessarily high hurdles to protecting others. These decisions shattered the fundamental framework of the Clean Water Act.

What's the Solution?

How do we fix the Clean Water Act and safeguard America's wildlife and waters?

On March 25, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers released their proposed rule, clarifying which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act. This rule proposes to restore protection to all of the tributaries of waters already covered by the Clean Water Act, and all of the wetlands, lakes, or other waters within or adjacent to the floodplains of these tributaries. The rule also specifically excludes many man-made ditches, ponds, and irrigation systems and honors the laws current exemptions for normal farming, ranching, and forestry practices.

While the proposal is an excellent first step, it leaves many important waters at risk. Critical fish and wildlife habitat and pollution filters including prairie potholes, Carolina bays, vernal pools, and playa lakes will remain unprotected. These waters store flood waters, filter pollution, and provide critical fish and wildlife habitat. These waters are important to the health of downstream rivers and bays, but these connections are less obvious because they are located beyond the floodplains of streams and rivers. To restore longstanding protections for these waters, we must make the scientific case for protecting them as “waters of the United States.”

Without this rule, many of our waters will continue to suffer. The decade-long loss of loss of protections has taken its toll. For the first time since the 1980s, annual wetland losses are on the increase. The public demonstrated broad support for the guidance and rule-making to follow. In February 2012, more than 250 state and local sportsmen organizations, watershed groups and outdoor businesses from 11 Great Lakes, southern and western states called on the administration to act quickly toward this end.

Read joint comments from National Wildlife Federation, the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, Berkley Conservation Institute, Izaak Walton League of America, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Trout Unlimited, and the Wildlife Management Institute on the 2014 Clean Water Act Rule.

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More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

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