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Restored Clean Water Act protections will benefit millions of Arizonans

Bret Fanshaw of Environment Arizona.

Bret Fanshaw of Environment Arizona.

With Memorial Day behind us, summer has unofficially begun. And that means Arizonans will escape the heat by enjoying rivers like the Salt and the Verde, fish in the cool pine lakes up north and stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.

Water is obviously a precious resource, essential to all those activities and more in Arizona. No economic activity could occur without it. We need to be protective of the limited amount of water we do have.

That’s why the May 27 announcement by top federal officials at the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers to restore Clean Water Act protections is such a big deal.

Arizona gets its water from surface resources like the Verde, Gila, Salt, and Agua Fria Rivers, as well as from the Colorado River and some groundwater sources.

It is common sense, but none of these water resources can be clean if the headwaters, streams, creeks washes, tributaries and other smaller sources that flow into them are unprotected from pollution. And yet that has been the case for 94 percent of Arizona’s waterways, ever since polluter-driven Supreme Court decisions 2001 and 2006 left loopholes in federal clean water law.

The Clean Water Rule signed May 27 will close these loopholes and guarantee federal safeguards to all of the headwaters, creeks and streams that help keep our rivers and drinking water sources clean.

All told, the rule will protect the drinking water for 3.2 million Arizonans. Nationally, the rule protects the drinking water sources of one in three Americans, and represents the biggest step forward for clean water in more than a decade.

It’s been a long time in the making. Because of the loopholes in the law, all too often developers could build in critical watershed areas like the proposed development at the Santa Cruz River; mining companies, oil companies and power plants could dump into our streams; and the feds couldn’t stop them. In Arizona, washes and creeks that can carry dangerous pollution into drinking water supplies were particularly vulnerable. In all, according to an analysis by The New York Times, over a four-year period following the court decisions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had to drop 1,500 cases against polluters who were dumping into or otherwise harming these waters.

Following years of advocacy from Environment Arizona and our allies, in March of last year EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed the Clean Water Rule to close the loophole once and for all. A broad national coalition of clean water advocates, farmers, mayors, and small businesses all supported the rule. Last fall, more than 10,000 Arizonans joined Americans across the country to submit more than 800,000 comments in its favor.

We wish that were the whole story.

Agribusinesses, oil and gas companies, developers and other polluters have waged a bitter campaign to keep the status quo. Their allies in Congress are working hard to assist them. The U.S. House has voted to block the Clean Water Rule multiple times, most recently on May 12. And Senate leaders, joined enthusiastically by Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake, have made clear their intent to attempt blocking restored protections for our streams and as well.

It is high time we protected all of Arizona’s waterways from pollution. I encourage our state and federal leaders to support the Clean Water Rule and its implementation in Arizona, as an opportunity to keep our most precious resource clean for our use today and for future generations.

— Bret Fanshaw is with Environment Arizona, a statewide, citizen-funded environmental advocacy organization working for clean air, clean water and open space.

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