3 Reasons the Clean Water Rule is Important to Athens, GA & Beyond

Today’s blog shares the opinion from Laurie Loftin, who is not a lawyer

Over the past year, you may have heard the EPA’s Clean Water Rule, also known as the Water of the US Rule (WOTUS), is under attack.  Much debate has been raised as to whether or not the measure is unconstitutional.  Opponents suggest the rule is an example of the federal government’s overreach and fondness of regulations.  The current White House hopes to roll back the rule.  Georgia is one of 31 states issuing a challenge in federal court.

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Infographic of potential protections & excluded features.  Click here to read this without glasses

So what is going on here?  Should you be concerned about this?  How does this affect you and others who live in Athens, GA?

I am not a lawyer, so I cannot speak to the legal merits of the Clean Water Rule.  I am, however, a human being dependent upon clean water.  I desire clean water.  I work for a utility whose mission is to provide this resource to our community.  I want to know what the Clean Water Rule – or the lack thereof – means to me.

Before I could determine how the Clean Water Rule (CWR) will impact my daily life, I did a
bit of research to gain understanding.  Let me share by starting with some brief history.  What we know as the Clean Water Act (CWA) was actually an amendment to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948.  In 1969 the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire.  Yes, water actually caught fire.  The filthy conditions of this river “water” helped jump-start the environmental movement.  The EPA was born in 1970, followed soon after by what we now call the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Broadly, the Clean Water Act set forth the goal of making all of our waters swimmable, fishable, navigable, drinkable, and nonflammable.  The EPA has the authority to set the standards for our waters, as well as the burden of enforcing these regulations.  The trouble arises in that the CWA of 1972 does not clearly state which waters are under its jurisdiction, leading to confusion and litigation.  The Clean Water Rule iswas written to remove any ambiguity.  The rule clarifies which tributaries, such as streams and creeks, are under the EPA’s protection.

Now back to the typical resident of Athens, GA.  What does this mean to you and why should you care?

Map populations Clarke GA get water from Waters of US rule

Over 100,000 people in Athens get their drinking water from surface water.  Where does yours come from?

#1.  You drink water.  Athens relies on surface water for our drinking water supply.
Specifically, we depend on three sources:  1) Bear Creek Reservoir, 2) Middle Oconee River, and 3) North Oconee River. The headwaters of these rivers are found in Hall County, with tributaries contributing to the rivers’ flow.  The CWR makes clear which of the tributaries are protected, all the way from Hall County to Clarke County and beyond.

According to the CWR, to be considered a tributary the water must show physical features of flowing water.  Most ditches do not have flowing water and aren’t considered tributaries, therefore they are not affected by this rule.  Likewise, the CWR does not cover gullies, groundwater, or puddles.  The new rule only protects waters that have historically been covered by the Clean Water Act.  So in a nutshell, the Clean Water Rule continues to protect the surface water you depend on every day, only now the definition of which waters are a protected tributary is clarified.

Anyone on Athens city water uses surface water.  When indirect water use is factored in, everyone in Athens, including those on well water, uses the surface water the CWR is designed to safeguard. For example, our restaurants depend on this municipal supply for the water mixed with your soda syrup, the ice in your glass, and the clean dishes you eat off of.  This rule affects all of us.

#2.  You don’t want to play in polluted water.  I am making an assumption here, but most

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I use to think of Brazil as an exotic locale to visit.  But this is the water. It is scratched off of my places to visit list. (image from flickr MAHM)

people want to vacation by clean water.  The water from the Oconee River eventually joins to form the Altamaha River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean near St. Simon’s Island and Brunswick, GA .  If this is your summer vacation spot, recognize that any pollution picked up in the water from Hall County on down will end up in your Atlantic swimming pool.  The Clear Water Rule is put in place to further limit the pollutants floating beside you.

Prefer to vacation along the Gulf of Mexico?  Because all ocean waters are formed by the emptying of rivers filled by the tributaries, the Clean Water Rule applies to this paradise, too.  The headwaters of the Mississippi River are found in northern Minnesota.  The Mighty Mississip then winds through ten states, traveling over 2,300 miles, before reaching the turquoise Gulf waters.  Imagine the number of pollutants that can be picked up over such a long distance. I would prefer to have someone watching over these waters to help limit the contaminants I end up swimming with.

#3.  You dine on seafood.  If you enjoy shrimp, oysters, and fish, then the CWR is important to you.  The rule helps to assure you have a seafood dinner you can afford.

Here is an example of how the regulation affects your tummy.   The aforementioned Mississippi River discharges into the Gulf of Mexico.  Along the way, it flows past farmland, industries, and water reclamation facilities, picking up high nutrient runoff and depositing it into the Gulf.  Fertilizers from farming are one of the main culprits for the increase in nutrients.  Another cause is from the effluent of water reclamation facilities in violation of their EPA permits.

The excess phosphorus and nitrogen dumped in the Gulf promote the growth of algae,

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The annual dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico averages to be about the size of Connecticut. (image from Wikimedia Commons)

which in turn removes oxygen from the water to create a “dead zone“.  Without oxygen, the sea life dies, hence the name.  When the oysters, shrimp, and fish of the Gulf die in mass numbers, there are less available for fisherman to harvest.  Less supply for the same demand increases the cost of your dinner.

The remaining aquatic life wisely moves further from shore so as to breathe.  The result is fishermen traveling longer distances to catch what remains.  The added expense of the fishing expeditions is seen on your bill at Red Lobster.

Since the Clean Water Act was put in place, waters in Athens and across the nation have improved.  We no longer hear of rivers catching fire.  We can swim without the worry of catching hepatitis. Point-source pollution has dropped from 85% to 15% of the pollutants in our waterways.

For all the good done by the CWA over the last 45 years, the work is not done and it must continue.  The Clean Water Rule strengthens the work done by the CWA.  We cannot take our cleaner waters for granted.  All we have to do is look to China to see that humans are easily enticed by the promise of higher incomes at the cost of the environment.  Closer to home, Flint, MI officials chose the dollar over the safety of the water.  These actions are happening today, in 2017.

No one benefits from polluted, unusable water. It is hard to understand how access to clean water has become a Republican vs. Democrat, conservative vs. liberal, farmer vs environmentalist battle.  Any short-term monetary gain is not worth the long-term loss to our much-needed resource. We speak of the need for unity in America.  Clean water is one issue that anyone, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political party can support.

The controversy over the Clean Water Rule is ongoing.  I suggest that the guardianship of our water and the availability of clean water is not to be debated, but rather viewed as a right to be protected for every citizen in the United States. Strengthening the Clean Water Act with the implementation of the Clean Water Rule makes sense.  The people in Athens, GA depend on it.

If interested in learning more about the Clean Water Rule, here are several links. I  have attempted to provide the facts as stated by the EPA, as well as articles presenting both sides of the debate to help readers form their own opinion:

Explanation of the Clean Water Rule from EPAcwavote

What the Clean Water Rule Does

What the Clean Water Rule Does Not Do

The entire Clean Water Rule

House to Take Up Bill Blocking EPA Water Rule, 1/16

Small Farmers Against Big Agribusiness, 1/16

U.S. Supreme Court’s ‘Waters of the U.S.’ gift to the Trump Administration, 1/17

Clean Water Rule Georgia Fact Sheet

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