PORTLAND – 61,000 miles of the state’s streams, including those feeding the Willamette and Columbia, will gain federal protections under a final rule signed today by top Obama administration officials. The measure restores Clean Water Act safeguards to small streams and headwaters that have been vulnerable to development and pollution for nearly ten years.
"The Rogue, Columbia, and Willamette are the rivers we fish and boat in, and they are only as clean as the streams that flow into them,” said Rikki Seguin, director of Environment Oregon. “That’s why today’s action is the biggest victory for clean water in a decade.”
By closing a loophole created by Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006, today’s rule returns Clean Water Act protections to streams that feed the drinking water sources for nearly 1.8 million Oregonians and one in three Americans. Millions of acres of wetlands, vital for flood control and filtering pollutants, will also again be shielded under federal law.
The court rulings had put small streams, headwaters and certain wetlands in a perilous legal limbo, allowing polluters and developers to dump into them or destroy them in many cases without a permit. In a four-year period following the decisions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had to drop more than 1500 cases against polluters, according to one analysis by the New York Times.
First proposed in March 2014, the joint rule by EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is backed by robust scientific review and has gained broad support across a wide range of constituencies. Mayors, brewers, kayakers, anglers, small businesses, and farmers – including 100 across Oregon -- have signaled their support. Oregonians joined Americans across the country to submit 800,000 comments in favor of the rule last fall.
Environment Oregon, among those pushing for restored stream protections for the better part of the last decade, has gathered over 30,000 comments from Oregonians and held more than 65,000 face-to-face conversations about the need to close the loophole in the Clean Water Act in the past year alone.
Despite broad public support for restored clean water protections, oil and gas companies, developers, and other polluters have waged a bitter campaign against them. The U.S. House has passed multiple bills to block or severely weaken the rule, including one measure as recently as two weeks ago.
While today’s action signaled the final chapter in the decade-long fight for small streams and headwaters, advocates warned today that U.S. Senate leaders were more determined than ever to use their authority derail the Clean Water Rule. Last Tuesday, a key subcommittee adopted a measure by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) to thwart the rule. This summer, the Senate is likely to use the Congressional Review Act block the clean water protections, setting up a veto fight with the president.
“Sens. Wyden and Merkley have been steady champions for our rivers and streams, standing up to the polluters every chance they get,” said Seguin. “Now we need them more than ever to see these clean water protections are signed, sealed and delivered.”