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Trout, the bay — and your drinking water — at risk in the Senate [Commentary]

On Monday, the Chesapeake Executive Council signed the Chesapeake Watershed Agreement, a collaborative effort across multiple states to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay. But the celebration of the watershed agreement may be premature. Down the road in Congress there is an effort under way to strip the protections of the Clean Water Act from small headwater streams that feed the bay with cold, clean water.

The federal government recently proposed a rule to clarify a politically charged Supreme Court ruling which undermined 30 years of protection of the Clean Water Act for small headwater streams. The court ruled that the EPA needed to prove a "significant nexus" to navigable waterways in order for the protections of the Clean Water Act to apply to intermittent and ephemeral streams and isolated wetlands. The new rules are based on an exhaustive scientific review that demonstrate that intermittent and ephemeral streams have a significant nexus with navigable waterways. Nearly 40 percent of all of the stream miles in the Chesapeake watershed are small, seasonal headwater streams. All of them would benefit from the rules proposed by the federal government.

Despite the seasonality, these streams are important trout habitat, and they are vital for downstream water quality. Protecting the water quality of the Chesapeake starts with protecting these headwater streams.

Working through our volunteers and partners, Trout Unlimited has made excellent progress in restoring and protecting many streams that feed the bay. In West Virginia, we installed over a million feet of fence to keep cattle out of the upper reaches of the Potomac. In Pennsylvania, we've worked with private landowners to help establish conservation easements that reduce runoff. In Maryland and New York, we restored stretches of river to stabilize banks and create fish habitat and angling opportunities.

The Clean Water Act is the fundamental tool that makes this work possible. And the Clean Water Act's protections for small streams are under attack.

A bill moving through the Senate Appropriations Committee chaired by Maryland's Sen. Barbara Mikulski will likely see an amendment to kill the federal government's Clean Water Act rules. Companion legislation in the House of Representatives would prohibit the EPA from working on the rule, and we expect an amendment to be offered to the Senate version to do the same thing. The Energy and Water Appropriations bill funds many important water enhancement programs across the country, and opponents to the proposed rule see it as an opportunity to assault America's foremost water quality law and play politics with clean water and healthy, fishable streams.

Instead of inappropriately using a funding bill to derail clean water rules, critics should participate in the public process to make the rules better.

The point is not to regulate a farmer's ditch or farm pond. We only want to restore the application of the Clean Water Act to waters that were protected for the first 30 years of the Clean Water Act's existence.

As chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Mikulski holds the key to keeping the Clean Water Act and its importance in protecting the bay intact. She has long been a champion of the Chesapeake, and as we sit on the verge of celebrating an agreement that will continue to improve its water quality, we need her strong leadership once again.

Whether you fish for brook trout in the headwaters or catch rockfish in the bay itself, or are just one of the 3.9 million people who get drinking water from the streams that would be protected by this rule, please make your voice heard. Support the senator in doing what it takes to defend the Clean Water Act from misguided attacks.

Chris Wood is the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. His email is cwood@tu.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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