New Rule to Protect 50 Percent of Bay State Streams

By ecoRI News staff

More than half of Massachusetts’ streams (52 percent), including those feeding the Charles River and Boston Harbor, will gain federal protections under a new rule signed May 27 by top Obama administration officials, according to Environment Massachusetts. The measure restores Clean Water Act safeguards to small streams and headwaters that have lacked federal protection from development and pollution for nearly a decade.

“Our rivers and bays are only as clean as the streams that flow into them,” said Ben Hellerstein, campaign organizer for Environment Massachusetts. “Thanks to the Clean Water Act, we’ve made major progress in cleaning up the Charles River, Boston Harbor and other waterways across the state. Today’s action by the Obama administration brings us closer to a future where all of Massachusetts’ waterways are safe for swimming and fishing.”

By closing a loophole created by Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006, the recent ruling returns Clean Water Act protections to streams that feed the drinking water sources for 4.9 million Massachusetts residents, according to Environment Massachusetts. Across the country, millions of acres of wetlands, vital for controlling floods and filtering pollutants, also will again be protected under federal law.

The court rulings had put small streams, headwaters and certain wetlands in a perilous legal limbo, allowing polluters and developers to dump into them or destroy them in many cases without a permit, Hellerstein said. In a four-year period following the decisions, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had to drop more than 1,500 cases against polluters, according to a 2010 New York Times report.

First proposed in March 2014, the joint rule by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers is backed by robust scientific review and has gained broad support from wide range of constituencies. Environment Massachusetts, together with its affiliates and coalition partners in other states, collected more than 800,000 public comments in favor of the rule.

Despite broad public support for restored clean water protections, oil and gas companies, developers and other polluters have waged a bitter campaign against them, according to Environment Massachusetts. The U.S. House has passed multiple bills to block or severely weaken the rule, including one measure as recently as two weeks ago.

While the May 27 action signaled the final chapter in the decade-long fight for small streams and headwaters, advocates warn that U.S. Senate leaders were more determined than ever to use their authority to derail the Clean Water Rule. On May 26, a key subcommittee adopted a measure by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., to thwart the rule. This summer, the Senate is likely to use the Congressional Review Act to block the clean water protections and likely setting up a veto fight with the president.

The Clean Water Rule, however, is important to more than quality-of-life issues, according to Meg Kerr, director of Clean Water Action Rhode Island. The rule’s protections also are important to Rhode Island’s economy, she said. Kerr noted that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has reported that in 2011 $360 million was spent on wildlife recreation in the Ocean State, including $130 million on fishing alone, and more than 402,000 people participated in these recreational activities.

“Rhode Island is defined by its fantastic water resources,” she said. “Narragansett Bay and the rivers that feed it provide Rhode Islanders with unsurpassed opportunities for fishing, boating and beautiful scenery along with critical water supply resources.”