Environment New Hampshire
Keene Sentinel
Jessica O'Hare

The Connecticut River, an irreplaceable treasure of New Hampshire, and all other waterways, are threatened by continuous pollution from sewage treatment plants and outdated infrastructure.

Furthermore, industrial chemical pollution continues to degrade the health of the Connecticut and other rivers across the country. A recent report by Environment America, “Wasting Our Waterways,” showed that industrial facilities dumped 232 million pounds of toxic chemicals into our nation’s waterways in 2007; industrial facilities dumped almost 43,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into the Connecticut.

We have regulations on the books to protect our rivers, lakes and streams. Unfortunately, over the last 10 years these protections have been weakened to allow polluters to dump unlimited pollution in the streams and wetlands that feed our great waterways.

The primary piece of legislation designed to protect our surface waters is the Clean Water Act. It was passed in 1972 when our rivers where so polluted that some, like the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, caught on fire.

We have come a long way in 30 years. Unfortunately, recent Supreme Court decisions have set us back — taking away Clean Water Act protections for thousands of streams and millions of acres of wetlands.

In 2001, in Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. Army Corps of Engineers, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling decided that certain isolated, interstate ponds were not protected by the Clean Water Act. In this ruling the court suggested that the term “navigable waters” in the act limits protections to waterways that can be navigated. The court fundamentally ignored the fact that Congress defined “navigable waters” broadly to mean the “waters of the United States,” and the court similarly brushed aside its own prior decision by saying the word “navigable” was of “limited import.”

In 2006, the Supreme Court revisited which waters are covered by the Clean Water Act in the case Rapanos v. U.S. The court failed to reach a majority decision (it was a 4-1-4 ruling), but in several opinions it added further confusion to the jurisdiction of the Act. Most notably, the court put into question protections for intermittent streams and wetlands near navigable waters.

New limits on the act and confusion over the scope of protection have left waterways across the country unprotected and now leave many more at risk of losing their protections. According to the EPA, 15 percent of streams in New Hampshire could lose Clean Water Act protections because they are seasonal. Similarly, 55 percent of New Hampshire streams could lose protection because they are headwater streams and no other streams flow into them.

Furthermore, the lack of clarity over which waterways are covered by the Clean Water Act has slowed and even prevented the EPA from issuing permits for waterways that by current standards should be protected. In just one 18-month period (July 2006-December 2007), 500 of the EPA’s clean water enforcement cases were compromised because of uncertainty over whether the waterway was still covered by the Clean Water Act.

This year we have an opportunity to restore the act to its original intent and once again protect all our waterways by passing the Clean Water Restoration Act.

The measure clarifies that the definition of “waters of the United States” in the Clean Water Act is broad and based on a decades-old definition of waters in agency regulations. Thus, this bill restores Clean Water Act protections to the critical streams that supply our drinking water and feed our great water bodies.

The Clean Water Restoration Act passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in June, and an earlier House version was introduced in 2007. We thank N.H. Rep. Paul Hodes for co-sponsoring the Clean Water Restoration Act and getting us steps closer to finally restoring the Clean Water Act. Now this bill is set to be taken up by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. However, Rep. Jim Oberstar, the chairman of the committee from Minnesota, has yet to introduce the bill in the committee. It is crucial that we pass this legislation this session and restore protection to all of America’s waterways.

Protections for the streams that feed our great waterways and the wetlands that clean them are crucial to maintaining our quality of life. Our waterways like the Connecticut are hallmarks of our state. The Monadnock Region depends on our waterways for drinking water and recreation. Without adequate protections, we risk losing these invaluable assets.

Reps. Hodes and Carol Shea-Porter, from New Hampshire’s 1st District, need to take strong action to protect the Connecticut River and all America’s waterways. By doing so, we can take a pivotal step toward finally cleaning up our rivers, lakes and streams and maintaining them for future generations.