By Cindy Haverkamp

Word came down last week that the EPA is proposing a major reworking of federal water protections. In this article from The New York Times, we learn that the new plan would weaken federal protections for millions of acres of wetlands and streams. The proposal would re-define what constitute “waters of the United States”, rolling back federal water protections to the pre-George H.W. Bush era.

On the surface, we can all agree that safe, clean drinking water is not just a right, but a necessity for human thriving. What lies beneath, however, is the extent to which government regulation is necessary to determine what constitutes a “body of water” and how that water can and should be used. These are questions environmentalists, farmers and land developers have been debating since 1972, when the Clean Water Act first became law.  

Some history and context

Cuyahoga River Fire, June, 1969

In June of 1969, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire when sparks from a passing train ignited floating bits of oil-slicked debris. This event traumatized an American populace just starting to become “eco-aware” and resulted in actions to regulate pollution on land and in the water.  The Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970 and clean water legislation soon followed.

The original Clean Water Act prohibited the discharge of pollution into “navigable waters”.  The first President Bush, an avid fisherman, expanded protections to wetlands, “no matter how small”, and President Obama amended the definition of “waters of the United States” to include about 60% of all of America’s tributaries, streams, and wetlands, including those considered to be “ephemeral” or seasonal. With these additions, Presidents Bush and Obama hoped to ensure that even water that traveled long distances, sometimes underground, would be pollution and pesticide-free when it reached the larger water bodies—rivers, reservoirs, lakes and bays—from which we harvest our drinking water.

The current administration, as well as agriculture groups and real estate developers, consider this expanded definition to be regulatory overreach; some have even called it a “land grab”.  According to National Public Radio, current EPA officials agree that it may be time to restore a “careful balance” to the Clean Water rules. Farmers insist that they will continue to work hard to keep pollutants and pesticides out of our water supply whether there is government regulation or not as they, too, will be drinking it, watering crops with it and giving it to their livestock.

Further complicating the issue is that states, counties and other local governing bodies have their own rules which define water bodies and their use. Here in Washington State, farmers, environmentalists and developers have been in a bitter three-year battle over the “Hirst decision”—a limit on new water wells that effectively halted new home development in rural areas by demanding that only wells having no negative impacts on stream flow could be permitted. Farmers say the decision short-circuits the farm-to-table movement because it prevents new farmers from being able to build farms. Developers say the Hirst decision is costing Washington State millions of dollars by reducing property values. Environmentalists say that, until salmon and orca are brought back from the brink of extinction, no one should be privatizing the waters of Washington – every undeveloped stream, lake and wetland must be preserved as habitat. A false dichotomy of “fish versus families” has made it impossible for good people to come together to dream up creative solutions to this water-rights problem.

What does the church have to say?

Where does The United Methodist Church stand on this complicated and fractious issue? The United Methodist Book of Resolutions calls United Methodists to “affirm, educate and advocate for clean, accessible, affordable water as a basic human right…to be shared and enjoyed by all God’s people.” The United Methodist Social Principles call for “all municipalities to develop processes for determining sustainability of water resources and to determine the environmental, economic and social consequences of privatization of water resources prior to the licensing and approval thereof.”(¶160A) The Social Principles also support Family Farms, advocating “for the rights of people to possess property and to earn a living by tilling the soil,” (¶ 163H) providing they “use sustainable methods” that “respect ecosystems”. (¶162Q)

Interpreting these principles for the public square, please note the both/and behind these words: Clean water is a basic human right AND farmers should be allowed to use water sustainably to grow our food. We must remember that water is a God-given resource. We need to use it to survive. It is in how we use it that careful decisions must be made. It is possible for farmers and environmentalists to work together to develop plans which allow for sustainable uses of water that respect ecosystems.  It is possible for regulators to develop reasonable policies that allow farmers to make educated decisions about how best to care for the shared resources that cross their property.

No one wants to return to an era of uncontrolled and dangerous pollution, but arguments over whether a puddle is a “water of the United States” are getting us exactly nowhere. New EPA plans will likely be held up in court, and the Hirst decision has had its own share of legal challenges, so this remains an issue we will need to talk about. Common-sense regulations can be developed in a community-centered decision-making process if all parties are willing to come to the table and patiently work toward compromise. Somewhere there exists a middle ground where all agree that water, a sacred gift from God meant to be shared and enjoyed, can be both kept safe for drinking and used to grow food for all God’s creatures whether they walk, fly or swim.

Cindy Haverkamp serves as Communications Associate for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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