Obama administration issues rule to protect 57 percent of Virginia’s streams

virginia-newOver 28,0000 miles of Virginia’s streams, including those feeding the James and Potomac Rivers, will gain federal protections under a final rule signed today by top Obama administration officials. The measure restores Clean Water Act safeguards to small streams and headwaters that have been vulnerable to development and pollution for nearly ten years.

“From the Potomac and James Rivers to the Chesapeake Bay, the waters we swim and fish in can only be clean if the streams that flow into them are protected,” said Sarah Bucci, campaign director with Environment Virginia. “That’s why today’s action is the biggest victory for clean water in a decade.”

By closing a loophole created by Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006, today’s rule returns Clean Water Act protections to streams that feed the drinking water sources for more than 2.3 million Virginians and one in three Americans. Millions of acres of wetlands, vital for flood control and filtering pollutants, will also again be shielded under federal la

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. In a four-year period following the decisions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had to drop more than 1500 cases against polluters, according to one analysis by The New York Times.

First proposed in March 2014, the joint rule by EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is backed by robust scientific reviewand has gained broad support across a wide range of constituencies. Local elected officials, brewers, kayakers, small businesses, and farmers across Virginia, have signaled their support. Virginians joined Americans across the country to submit 800,000 comments in favor of the rule last fall.

“The Rivanna River and clean water in general are the lifeblood of Charlottesville’s community,” said Charlottesville Councilwoman Kristin Szakos. “I’m thrilled that the EPA is protecting the health of Virginia’s rivers, streams and wetlands for generations to come.”

Environment Virginia, among those pushing for restored stream protections for the better part of the last decade, has gathered nearly 35,000 comments from Virginians and nationally held more than half a million face-to-face conversations about the need to close the loophole in the Clean Water Act in the last year alone.

“Developing and producing recreational programs to connect the public with our natural resources can only continue with the promise of

clean water in the future,” said Captain Mike Ostrander of Discover the James eco-tours.

Despite broad public support for restored clean water protections, oil and gas companies, developers, and other polluters have waged a bitter campaign against them. 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 today’s action signaled the final chapter in the decade-long fight for small streams and headwaters, advocates warned today that U.S. Senate leaders were more determined than ever to use their authority derail the Clean Water Rule. Last Tuesday, 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 block the clean water protections, setting up a veto fight with the president.

“Senator Mark Warner has sided with our rivers over the polluters before, and we need him to do so again,” said Bucci. “Today the administration signed and sealed critical protections for our rivers and streams, but they simply won’t get delivered without Senator Warner.”

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