Take Action on Water Quality in Iowa

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Iowa's waters are dangerously polluted. The problem is caused by big industries (e.g. coal plants, meat processing facilities) which dump straight into our waterways toxic chemicals that cause cancer and reproductive and developmental disorders (see our 10/2009 report). Large-scale farming operations are also implicated.

The results are devastating for the health of human and natural communities across the state. The Iowa River, an important recreational resource and supplier of the Iowa City area's drinking water, has been listed as “endangered.” In Des Moines, the water works had to stop drawing drinking water from the Raccoon River in September because of the growth of pollution-fed algae.

Whether in Iowa City or Des Moines, we all are near some body of water and these waters are where we smim, fish, canoe, and indeed where many of us get our drinking water. It is imperative that we protect them.

Many Iowans know that the DNR has recently nominated certain waters in the state as “outstanding waters,” sparing them from further pollution. This process, known as the “anti-degradation” rule-making process, is required by federal law under the Clean Water Act (CWA).

Yet what many Iowans may not know is that, like the Iowa River, the CWA is itself fast becoming endangered.

For decades, the CWA applied to all of the nation’s waters, from the source water streams to the seasonal streams that feed our drinking water supplies. Though the DNR has failed, until recently, to start implementing the CWA here, it still provides the legal structure which allows us to make advances in cleaning up our waters.

However, two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County (or “SWANCC”) v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2001 and Rapanos v. U.S. in 2006, and U.S. EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers policies have thrown the longstanding certainty of which waters are covered into doubt.  Under varying interpretations of the Supreme Court decisions and the agencies’ policies, the smaller water bodies that feed our drinking water supplies and the wetlands that clean our great waters are among those for which the extent of Clean Water Act protections has been questioned.

About 60% of Iowa's streams may have lost protection and these streams end up affecting the drinking water sources of 600,000 Iowans.

The Clean Water Restoration Act (CWRA) is a bill which would reaffirm longstanding CWA protections to all of the nation's waterways as Congress originally intended.

The legislation:

  • Adopts a statutory definition of “waters of the United States” based on decades-old definition in U.S. EPA’s and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ regulations.
  • Deletes the word “navigable” from the CWA to clarify that the Act is principally intended to protect the nation’s waters from pollution, not just maintain navigability.

It does not impose any new regulatory requirements and does not broaden or add any new category of waters to the scope of the CWA. It would simply restore the law, clearly protecting what was protected before the Supreme Court’s 2001 decision. 

In June, the Senate Environment and Public Works committee passed the CWRA and now Environment Iowa is working to get it passed in the House. Representative Boswell in particular will play an important role as he sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the first and biggest hurdle for the legislation.

Please take action to improve the quality of the waters in Iowa where we fish, swim, canoe, and draw our drinking water:

Contact your Congressperson to advocate for the CWRA through our petition here

The Environmental Protection Commission approved the anti-degradation rules back in December, now the Legislative Administrative Rules Committee will meet to consider the designations. To learn more, visit here.

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