The tapestry of creeks and runs that flow to the Monongahela and the Allegheny rivers of Western Pennsylvania were the treasured playgrounds of my youth. They are the lifeblood of our Western Pennsylvania communities and provide drinking water to more than 2 million people in the Greater Pittsburgh area.
The wetlands and creeks they nourish are our first line of defense against floods, and they form the backbone of a vibrant outdoor recreation economy. In 2011, 4.5 million people spent $2.8 billion on wildlife-related recreation in Pennsylvania. Fishing alone generated $485 million in sales. These figures have declined since 2006, though; I fear in part due to declining water quality in some Pennsylvania rivers from gas development.
Right now, not all of our waterways are fully protected under the Federal Clean Water Act due to two confusing Supreme Court decisions that made it unclear which U.S. waters qualify for state and federal protections. As a result, our drinking water and our way of life are at risk. As we recently saw in West Virginia and North Carolina, no one’s water supplies are immune from contamination.
For this reason, I would like to thank the Obama administration for its proposal to restore long-standing Clean Water Act protections to many wetlands, creeks and other water bodies. Uncertainty has undermined efforts to hold polluters accountable to clean up contamination, and it has resulted in the loss of valuable wetlands and floodplains.
To better protect our waters for future generations, the administration — acting through the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers — must finalize a formal rule that clearly defines which water bodies count as “waters of the United States” Once that definition is in place, it will be far easier to protect all Pennsylvania waters.
This scope of the proposed rule is limited and focused. Not only will it clarify which water bodies are eligible for protection, it also will specify which ones are not. The proposal specifically excludes most man-made ditches, ponds and irrigation systems. It preserves the Clean Water Act’s existing exemptions for normal farming, ranching and forestry practices.
While I am disappointed that the proposal stops short of restoring full protections for many natural wetlands that provide important flood storage and critical wildlife habitat but that are not adjacent to larger rivers or streams, I believe this rule takes an important step forward.
Pennsylvania has already lost more than half of its natural wetlands. Remaining wetlands, including vernal pools and other more isolated wetlands, are particularly important to ducks, other migratory birds, amphibians and reptiles that we enjoy in Pennsylvania. We look forward to making the legal and scientific case for protecting these waters as well.
The current lack of protections risks fouling our most precious resource — water. In many places in Western Pennsylvania, polluted waterways have damaged the economy and diminished our way of life. Our children and grandchildren will reap the benefits of the administration’s efforts to protect our waters today.
Larry Schweiger is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation and served for eight years as president and CEO of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.