Until recently, 51 percent of Minnesota’s streams (including many of the streams and wetlands that flow into the Mississippi River, the Minnesota River, the St. Louis River, and many of Minnesota’s most important lakes) did not have guaranteed protections under the Clean Water Act. That meant developers could build over our wetlands; oil companies, power plants and manufacturing industries could dump into our streams; and federal law couldn’t stop them, thanks to a loophole created by a pair of polluter-driven lawsuits nearly a decade ago.
The loophole left vulnerable the wetlands and streams that feed into these rivers and lakes, and other rivers and lakes popular for paddling and swimming. That leaves communities like Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul (to name a few), where Minnesotans’ economic and cultural way of life depends upon clean water, vulnerable. Demonstrating the scope of Minnesota’s clean water economy, a recent roundup of publicly available recreation statistics found that 9.5 million Minnesotans visit parks that feature waterways each year; 800,000 Minnesotans registered recreational boats; and more than 1.4 million people registered fishing licenses in Minnesota.
Fortunately, on Aug. 28, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enacted a rule to close this loophole and restore protections to more than 46,000 miles of streams across Minnesota and nearly 2 million across the country. The Clean Water Rule restores Clean Water Act protections to more than 46,000 miles of waterways here in Minnesota, which provide drinking water to almost 970,000 Minnesotans. It’s the biggest step forward for clean water in more than a decade. Already, tens of thousands of Minnesotans (including many small farmers and local elected officials) have stepped forward to declare their support for restoring water quality protections.
Private profits or the common good?
Jim Spencer noted a few weeks ago on the Star Tribune blog The Mill that development and agricultural interests generally oppose the EPA’s Clean Water Rule as over-regulation that undermines the use of private property. Industry groups commonly deploy this argument to attack those regulations protecting our environmental commons – the air that we all breathe, and the water that we all drink. But these regulations are badly needed to protect our most valuable resources.
Al Jazeera recently published the first in a three-part series examining Wisconsin’s stressed water resources, drawing international attention to its environmental record under the governorship of Scott Walker. Walker entered office in 2011 determined to rein in the state’s “out-of-control DNR.” Since Walker’s ascension, business permitting has skyrocketed and environmental regulatory enforcement has plummeted. In the past 10 years, the number of controversial frac sand mines in Wisconsin has exploded from five to more than 60. In the same amount of time, factory farms have multiplied, from just 50 to 250.
While the private sector may benefit from Walker’s regulatory rollback, the public suffers. Following on the heels of Al Jazeera’s report, MinnPost republished an extensive article by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism documenting the contamination in Wisconsin’s drinking water sources and the federal and state government’s failure to address the problem. As a result of regulatory enforcement and gung-ho permitting, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites are at risk of consuming drinking water tainted by lead, nitrate, disease-causing bacteria and viruses, heavy metals, and other contaminants. The prevalence of these contaminants (often two or more in many drinking water sources) led some researchers to compare one Wisconsinite’s water to that of a Third World country.
Regulations act to preserve the environmental quality that allows all Minnesotans to thrive. Minnesotans should therefore applaud Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s and Sen. Al Franken’s votes in opposition to attacks on the EPA’s Clean Water Rule in the U.S. Senate. There’s no need to repeat our neighbor’s mistakes.
Don’t let dirty water ride into town!
After Senate Democrats (with the aid of President Barack Obama’s veto threat) staved off two attacks on the Clean Water Rule during the first week of November, Senate Republicans turned to the must-pass budget bill as their final option for getting rid of it. Their plan is simple: install a dirty water rider that rolls back the Clean Water Rule and threaten a government shutdown if Democrats don’t pass it. Simple and effective – but dirty.
It’s more important than ever that Sens. Klobuchar and Franken hear from those who love Minnesota’s waterways and its clean-water economy. They need your support to continue to stand up for clean water.
Peter Suechting is a clean water organizer at Environment Minnesota.
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