For clean water

Don’t ignore science or public

By Sam D. Cooke Special to the Democrat-Gazette

Arkansas' Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, Sen. Tom Cotton and Rep. Rick Crawford seem literally out of step with the public in their recent actions to oppose clean-water protections.

Nothing is more fundamental than clean water.

In Arkansas, 941,225 people--almost a third of Arkansans--receive their drinking water from streams covered by a new Environmental Protection Agency rule.

Outdoor recreation is a large part of Arkansas' economy. According to a 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey, $2 billion is spent in the state annually on hunting and fishing alone. The delay of clean-water protection jeopardizes one of the largest sources of small-business jobs in the state.

Attorney General Rutledge filed suit and received a temporary delay (in Arkansas) of a water-protection rule enacted by the EPA which would have restored protections previously in force for decades. Cotton's and Crawford's public communications on the rule have been misleading and only serve to create distrust and fear.

In the process, all three have ignored the opinions of constituents.

• 79 percent of voters think an EPA rule should move forward (League of Conservation Voters poll, May 2015).

• 83 percent of hunters and anglers support using the U.S. Clean Water Act to protect small streams and wetlands (National Wildlife Federation poll, July 2015).

What is this rule?

The U.S. EPA and the Corps of Engineers recently finalized a federal rule restoring the 1972 U.S. Clean Water Act's original protections to smaller streams and wetlands--while clearly maintaining the act's original exemptions for normal farming, ranching and forestry practices. This was necessary after U.S. Supreme Court cases brought confusion regarding which streams were covered by the act. Groundwater, farm ponds, irrigation ponds, puddles, dry ditches and those with intermittent water are excluded from the rule.

Why should this rule move forward now?

The Clean Water Rule is underpinned by compelling and well-researched science that should not be ignored. Peer-reviewed research demonstrates what most Americans intuitively understand: that small streams feed into big rivers, and the health of these streams affects our drinking water, our outdoor heritage and our way of life.

According to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality's 303(d) report to the EPA, over 40 percent of the state's rivers and streams (and 36 percent of lakes) do not meet minimal water-quality standards, largely due to loadings of silt, sediment and nutrients. That means 40 percent of Arkansas streams fail to meet the needs for aquatic life, drinking water, commerce or recreation. Polluting sediments and nutrients can and do enter anywhere along the stream's course.

The Buffalo River, an Ozark Zone Blue Ribbon smallmouth bass stream and a national recreation destination, is one of many rivers that will suffer from lack of Clean Water Act protections.

We need substantive efforts to solve our environmental challenges, and a leadership that can offer ideas to protect and restore our waters while sustaining a vibrant economy.

Implementing the rule will require cooperation and understanding from all involved. We need politicians who can promote collaboration and embrace the science underlying the issues so we can protect the streams and wetlands necessary for healthy fish, abundant wildlife, and safe drinking water.

Arkansans need these protections.

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Sam D. Cooke is president of Friends of the North Fork and White Rivers (www.friendsoftherivers.org), a nonprofit watershed protection organization.

Editorial on 11/14/2015