Thank you Mr. Chairman.
At the outset, I ask unanimous consent that a letter about the Rapanos-Carabell decision signed by the Croton Watershed Clean Water Coalition be made a part of the record.
This is an extremely important hearing, as it goes to the heart of the Clean Water Act, which is one of our greatest environmental success stories. Before its enactment, rivers were so polluted they caught on fire. And wetlands were routinely filled with the blessing or even assistance of the federal government.
Thanks to those who crafted this invaluable statute back in 1972 – more than 30 years ago – and those who have implemented and enforced it ever since, we have come a long way in cleaning up our nation’s rivers, lakes, streams, and coastlines, and in protecting valuable wetlands.
But we still have work to do. The most recent water quality report for New York, from 2002, indicates that 14 percent of rivers and streams, 75 percent of lakes, ponds and reservoirs, and 52 percent of bays and estuaries are “impaired,” meaning that they are not suitable for at least one designated use, such as recreation or drinking water.
So the implications of the Rapanos-Carabell decision are very important.
While the “4-1-4” decision of the Court largely left the protections of the Clean Water Act intact, it was a close call. Justice Scalia’s reasoning, supported by Justices Roberts, Alito and Thomas, would have eliminated protections for millions of acres of wetlands, tributaries, and intermittent or ephemeral streams. That would have been a devastating result.
The litigation centers on the definition of “the waters of the United States,” a term that governs much more than just the wetlands fill program under directly at issue in the case. In fact, that definition also applies to permits for discharge of pollutants, water quality standards, oil spill liability, prevention and control measures, and enforcement.
So the full range of federal water quality protections is at issue.
And I think that is why so many stakeholders—including the New York Attorney General and 32 other attorneys general, 4 former EPA Administrators, the city of New York, and many others—filed amicus briefs supporting the government’s position in this case.
I want to briefly outline what the government’s position in the case was. The government argued that, quote: “the Corps and EPA have acted reasonably in de fining the CWA term ‘the waters of the United States’ to include wetlands adjacent to tributaries of traditional navigable waters. The connection between traditional navigable waters and their tributaries is significant in practical terms, because pollution of the tributary has the potential to degrade the quality of the traditional navigable waters downstream. If tributaries of traditional navigable waters are covered by the CWA, then wetlands adjacent to those tributaries are covered as well.” End quote.
I agree with that assessment, and I want to highlight one reason why this is so important to my state, and in particular, to the millions of New Yorkers who rely on New York City’s drinking water. As I think my colleagues are aware, New York City negotiated an agreement with the EPA in 1997 whereby the city does not have to filter water from its Catskill reservoirs. But that water quality is highly dependent on the protection and treatment provided naturally within the nearly 2,000 square miles of land that drain into the City’s nineteen collecting reservoirs, including the extensive wetlands – approximately 25,800 acres – in that watershed area. As I mentioned before, New York City filed and amicus brief in this case, and I want to read a portion of that brief. Quote:
“Based on the City’s inventory of wetlands in the watershed of its water supply, nearly 10,000 acres, or 40 percent of these wetlands are not subject to regulation by New York State or the City because…these smaller wetlands, which nonetheless provide significant water quality benefits, approximately 4,300 acres, or 43 percent, lack regular, obvious surface connections to surface waters…The City thus relies on federal protection of smaller wetlands within its watershed.” End quote.
So how we define “the waters of the United States” is not an abstract matter for New Yorkers. It has profound impacts for the quality of their drinking water, and on their water rates, as building a filtration plant would cost billions of dollars.
That’s just one example of why this issue is so important to my constituents.
I think Congress needs to act to clarify this position, and to restore the strongest possible federal protections for our nation’s waters under the clean Water Act. We should not abandon states and localities, who have relied on the Act for more than 30 years.
Mr. Chairman, I thank you for holding this important hearing, and I hope that we can follow this with a hearing in the fall to look at possible legislative solutions.