To sanitize a course but popular truism, excrement flows downhill.
In 1972 many of the nation’s lakes and rivers were not fit for use as drinking water sources or for recreation, a problem that had been growing steadily worse for decades.
The federal government responded with the Clean Water Act regulating discharge of pollutants into waterways and policing certain practices regarding the management of these waters.
This act was successful in arresting the downward spiral of water quality, with significant improvement noted in many areas.
As with most major legislation, however, challenges and disagreements arose.
Language in the act is somewhat vague with regard to the size and type of water resources to be protected and the extent to which management activities on private land can be regulated.
This has resulted in court challenges as well as different regulatory approaches under various presidential administrations.
Under President Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency interpreted the rule broadly, providing protection for small streams and headwaters connecting to larger waterways, small wetlands in the floodplain of such waterways and in some cases isolated wetlands such as small lakes or prairie potholes.
Some agricultural and business interests, as well as the vast majority of Republicans, considered the resulting regulations unnecessary, excessive, and a bureaucratic overreach relative to what Congress intended.
In February, the Trump EPA proposed rolling back the Obama-era rules in the name of “providing regulatory certainty to our nation’s farmers and businesses.” Our Republican governor and U.S. senators applauded the move.
Who holds the higher ground as determined by basic science and common sense should be crystal clear.
Small streams flow into bigger streams that in turn flow into rivers and finally into lakes or oceans.
Isolated and/or seasonal wetlands either feed into these larger waterways or help recharge groundwater while filtering out pollutants and slowing water movement through the watershed, which reduces flooding.
While the impact of polluting or otherwise degrading a single such water may seem insignificant, the cumulative effect of doing so to enough of them can be disastrous.
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Thus, basic science and common sense tell us regulations exempting smaller waters while ostensibly safeguarding larger ones in effect protect nothing.
Yet as I’ve noted in past columns, common sense and the law are often entirely unrelated.
Viewed strictly as a legal matter, the extent of EPA jurisdiction under the act is murky at best. The “correct” interpretation is highly subjective.
The threats to our nation’s water — as well as our understanding of those threats — have changed considerably since 1972.
At that time, the primary source of pollution was most often industrial discharge directly into waterways. This “point-source” pollution is relatively simple to identify and comparatively easy to regulate.
It can be argued with some credibility this is the pollution the Clean Water Act was intended to target, and most would agree it has been fairly successful in that regard.
Today, many of our waters are impaired by sediment, excessive nutrients and, somewhat counter intuitively, simply too much water.
These “non point-source” pollutants enter waters of all sizes in small amounts at numerous locations and originate from multiple agricultural and urban contributors.
Regulating these inputs is more challenging and more controversial. Further, the legal justification for doing so under the Clean Water Act is less certain.
Ideally, federal legislators would step in to enhance the act, making clear it provides small waters some level of protection from these pollutants. Under the current administration and in the existing political climate, this seems unlikely.
At the state level, rank-and-file legislators in both parties have worked to address Iowa’s water-quality issues. Declining revenues and Republican aversion to tax increases have undermined these efforts.
Lacking a better alternative, water-quality advocates are urging the EPA to reconsider the regulatory changes and keep current protections intact. This also seems unlikely and might draw a legal challenge.
Meanwhile, excrement continues to flow downhill.