Clean Water Rule is a win for health in Michigan

Grant Shafer

All communities need clean water. The Clean Water Rule, which the Environmental Protection Agency just released, restores protections to waters that have been weakened by court decisions. Unfortunately, the rule is under attack by interests who fail to see how clean water is linked to communities’ overall well-being.

The Clean Water Rule restores protections to small streams, wetlands and other waters that feed into drinking water sources and are also used for fishing, swimming and community development.

Michigan has more than 51,000 miles of streams. Almost half of these streams do not flow year round, making their protection under the Clean Water Act questionable. It’s estimated that more than 1.4 million Michiganians receive some of their drinking water from areas containing these smaller streams. The Clean Water Rule clears up this confusion and protects our health and drinking water sources.

Further, Michigan has lost 50 percent of its wetlands — wetlands that provide fish and wildlife habitat. Half of Michigan’s threatened or endangered species need healthy wetlands to thrive successfully. Several of these plants and animals inhabit Michigan’s “isolated” wetlands: Wetlands that have been at risk of losing Clean Water Act protection for the last decade. These wetlands are no longer at risk because of the Clean Water Rule.

Communities depend on clean water. Thousands of U.S. residents become ill each year from drinking water contaminated with human and animal waste, pesticides, and heavy metals such as arsenic and lead. Bacteria or parasites in drinking water pose health risks of waterborne diseases, which some studies estimate to affect 7 million or more people each year, 560,000 of them severe cases. Nitrates found in fertilizers and human and animal feces wash into drinking water sources, where they can interfere with the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to the brain and vital organs.

Science demonstrates that upstream headwaters, wetlands, lakes or other waters act together to influence downstream waters by contributing clean water for drinking, irrigation, recreation and commercial fishing; filtering pollution and reducing downstream treatment costs; and reducing downstream flooding. That's why the EPA released the Clean Water Rule.

The Great Lakes are improving for our communities right now because of restoration projects across the region. The Clean Water Rule strengthens those gains. This rule more clearly protects waters that are extremely important to the health of the Great Lakes. According to the EPA, approximately 100,000 acres of wetland, coastal, upland and island habitat have been protected, restored or enhanced through federal funding. Successful enactment of the Clean Water Rule will help protect the investment we’ve made in Great Lakes wetlands, streams and the Lakes themselves.

In Southeast Michigan, restoration of the Rouge River is an example of community and government efforts to improve water quality resources for millions of individuals and families. The Rouge River Watershed is largely urbanized, spans approximately 466 square miles, is home to more than 1.5 million people and is a tributary to the Detroit River.

Major progress has been made in the control of pollution being discharged to the Rouge River. Coupled with the water quality improvements, the health of the ecosystem continues to improve as well. Demonstrated by increased sightings of fish and wildlife along the river and for the first time in decades fish caught in the Rouge River system have been safe for consumption.

To aid these current efforts to improve our community water resources we need the Clean Water Rule. The rule uses the law and science to clarify that waters like tributaries and adjacent waters must be protected under the Clean Water Act because they significantly affect the quality of downstream waters.

A strong Clean Water Rule improves our communities’ health and well-being, as well as our rivers, lakes and bays by protecting the small streams and wetlands they depend on.

Grant Shafer is a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility.