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Lawmakers Want to Take Away Federal Water Standards-

Air Date: Week of

A bill passed by the House of Representatives would revise the Clean Water Act to give states more authority to determine water quality standards, rather than the EPA. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports from the Chesapeake Bay how removing the EPA's enforcement role might affect plans to for clean up watersheds shared by different states.


GELLERMAN: The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to water down the federal government's role in the Clean Water Act. If the bill becomes law, it would leave states in charge of protecting water quality. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports from a river downstream from Capitol Hill.
TAJ: A half hour outside of Washington D.C. a summer scene plays out on the Severn River.


TAJ: Evin Remele is watching the kids swim.

REMELE: From what I've read is the water gets really dirty after the rain, so as long as there hasn't been a big rain, we feel it's safe.


TAJ: It turns out playtime is short. Soon, a summer storm rolls in, washing contaminants from motor oil, lawn chemicals, and sewage plants into the river, which in turn pours the pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, the country’s largest estuary. Beth McGee is a senior water quality scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation working to revive the enormous watershed. The Bay takes in runoff from six states and the District of Columbia. She says the Bay’s burden’s can be seen here at the edge of the Severn River.

MCGEE: You can see the water's murky, and so that's probably due to either sediments, so mud basically in the water, but also algae, you know when they bloom they change the water different colors. So certain algae may make it a mahogany color or reddish color.

TAJ: When they die, these pollution-fueled algal blooms suck the oxygen out of the water and create the dead zones that have been plaguing the watershed since the 1950s. In an oxygen-free dead zone, fish and other creatures native to the Bay can’t survive. One of the Environmental Protection Agency’s duties is to keep the nation’s waters clean and healthy, but it is not allowed to directly regulate one of the biggest single sources of Chesapeake Bay pollution: fertilizers from farms. Nitrogen and phosphates that help plants grow on land make algae bloom in the water.

MCGEE: If they had the ability to regulate agriculture they could require certain changes on agricultural lands. They are explicitly in the Clean Water prohibited from doing that. Runoff from row crop fields is not explicitly under the Clean Water Act.

TAJ: Although EPA’s authority doesn’t reach to farm runoff, a majority in the House of Representatives recently voted to severely limit the power that the EPA and the rest of the federal government do have to protect clean water. If the bill became law, each state would be in charge of its own river and bay protection. Republican supporter Rob Bishop of Utah says the Clean Water Act is long overdue for amendments to rein in the EPA. He told a story on the House floor about a constituent who lost his beet farm to federal overreach.

BISHOP: One federal bureaucrat from these agencies, driving by his property one day, seeing it flooded, declared it to be a wetland, even though the farmer said the only reason the water is there is because we have a pipe from the creek that goes over to the land. Now, this farm was his heritage, and it was his legacy for his kids. It is time to respect the idea that states care as much about their own states as the federal government would care about their states, and you can make the presumption they probably care more.

TAJ: Yet it was shortcomings in this same state-by-state approach that the Clean Water Act was intended to address in 1972. And since the early 80s, states that drain into the Chesapeake Bay have agreed several times to clean up their shared resource. Despite more than six billion dollars spent, none of their cleanup goals have been met.

SIGLIN: They just haven't done it, agreement after agreement has been broken; the states haven't done what they needed to do.

TAJ: Doug Siglin is the federal affairs director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The group sued the EPA for not enforcing an overarching cleanup plan for the shared Bay. Since then the EPA has taken the lead in developing a new pollution diet for the seven jurisdictions in the Chesapeake watershed.

SIGLIN: Using its Clean Water Act authority the EPA has now stepped in and told the states that they must achieve pollution reduction goals by 2025. Without that authority, without the EPA telling the states what to do, I’m very confident that it wouldn't happen.

TAJ: Without the EPA to lead the group and enforce the standards with consequences, any one jurisdiction could throw the negotiated plan off track again if state politics change. But Kathy Mathers with the Fertilizer Institute says the EPA shouldn’t be able to mandate specific pollution limits for each state when it isn’t clear how much each state contributes.

MATHERS: So for EPA to step in and attempt to implement a rule for individual states for an incredibly huge area, without even knowing what the sources of those nutrients are, or the actual sources of those nutrients are — for example EPA and USDA don’t even agree — we have a real problem with that.

TAJ: The bill to dramatically change the Clean Water Act moves next to the Senate, where passage will be tough. But Doug Siglin with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says with debt negotiations consuming Washington, anything could happen.

SIGLIN: If this were a normal year this legislation would not have a chance in the Senate, but this year is different, everything is going to be up in the air pending an agreement about the debt ceiling, there’s just no predicting what could happen and a bill like this could find a way to sneak through.

TAJ: For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj.



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