Commentary: Our rivers, streams need to be protected

Healthy rivers and streams are important to us here in Virginia. Like many here in the “Canoe Capitol,” I’m an avid outdoors person who loves to go kayak fishing in the Shenandoah.

These places aren’t just part of our way of life, they are a big part of our economy. Outdoor recreation in Virginia — paddling, fishing, hunting and other activities — generates $13.6 billion in direct spending each year. Much of that spending happens right here in the Shenandoah Valley.

But our waters are not as well protected as they once were. A decade ago, two controversial Supreme Court decisions cast into doubt Clean Water Act protections for smaller streams and many wetlands associated with those streams.

Since that time, thousands of pollution incidents nationwide — from chemical spills or manure from factory farms fouling creeks — have gone without adequate investigation or enforcement. In addition, the rate of wetlands destruction shot up immediately in the wake of these unfortunate court decisions.

The current state of affairs is a risk to our drinking water. More than 2 million people in Virginia get drinking water from streams that are now not clearly protected by the Clean Water Act. Many unprotected streams flow directly into our own Shenandoah River, the source of our drinking water.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers recently finalized a rule restoring Clean Water Act protections to smaller streams and the wetlands associated with them. The agencies looked carefully at the science, met with hundreds of stakeholder groups and ultimately drafted a clear and enforceable rule that will better protect drinking water and wildlife habitat.

Unfortunately, this commonsense rule has come under intense fire from industries that benefit from the current legal uncertainty: industrial agriculture, real estate development, mining, and oil and gas.

These industries have orchestrated a deceptive campaign to spread fear about the new rule — and they have had success at finding allies on Capitol Hill.

But the public is not confused. A recent poll from the National Wildlife Federation found that 82 percent of hunters and anglers in Virginia — one of the most conservative constituencies in the state — support applying the Clean Water Act protections to smaller streams and wetlands.

Groups like Trout Unlimited and the Izaak Walton League of America are working to educate the public about the benefits of clean water for wildlife and the economy. I recently had the opportunity to discuss the need for this rule with some of our Virginia delegation on Capitol Hill. I was proud to add my voice to the nearly 900,000 Americans who have spoken out in support of protecting these streams and wetlands.

Despite the strong public support, the rule is in a tough fight. The Senate recently voted on a bill to effectively block this new rule and weaken the Clean Water Act, leaving America’s rivers and streams at risk.

I’m grateful that neither Sen. Mark Warner nor Sen. Tim Kaine voted for this unfortunate “dirty water” bill. President Obama has promised a veto, should it be necessary. But the rule could come up for debate again during the budget process.

The chemical spill in the Elk River and the two Bakken crude oil spills into the Kanawha and the James rivers ought to remind us what is at stake. There’s little to stop another catastrophe from striking Virginia’s waters. If a pipeline broke or a chemical spill contaminated the streams that feed into the Shenandoah, I’d want a full federal investigation. Wouldn’t you?

This rule is a simple way to protect our drinking water and our rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands. Those who oppose it — in the courts or on Capitol Hill — are essentially just hoping that the public is not paying close attention.

Herschel L. Finch is conservation director of the Warren County chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America and the Potomac River Smallmouth Club.