Water flows downhill. From that basic law of physics, it follows that anything dumped into a water source -- including pollutants -- will eventually wend its way downstream through the interconnectedness of wetlands, tributaries, streams, rivers, ponds and lakes.
For this reason, Congress passed the 1972 Clean Water Act to set a national standard protecting all the nation's waters. For more than three decades, the agencies charged with enforcing those safeguards have viewed the aquatic system as a whole, realizing that the capillaries connect to the bloodstream.
The benefits to the nation from this farsighted legislation have been incalculable.
Last year, the Supreme Court threw it all into confusion.
In a contentiously split decision, the court mandated that, for the present at least, questions of Clean Water Act jurisdiction over many wetlands will have to be thrashed out on a case-by-case basis in the lower courts. The decision also placed federal protection of important headwater streams in doubt. A 2001 decision further muddied the waters over Clean Water Act protection for isolated wetlands and streams.
The result of these decisions is certain: the lawyers will have a field day.
The solution is obvious.
Some of Congress' staunchest defenders of the Clean Water Act, including Reps. James Oberstar of Minnesota and John Dingell of Michigan, have just introduced legislation confirming that Congress meant what it said in 1972: The Clean Water Act applies to all the nation's waters and not just some.
Passage of this legislation to end the confusion caused by the Supreme Court is the most decisive tool available.
The Clean Water Restoration Act of 2007 reaffirms the traditional scope and clear purpose of the Clean Water Act. Unless the legislation becomes law, 20 million acres of wetlands are at risk of losing protections. Additionally, some 60 percent of stream miles which do not flow year-round could also lose protection.
These waters are the lifeblood of our country's diverse water system. Healthy streams, wetlands and lakes mean healthy people and abundant populations of wildlife. Weakening protections for these waters puts us all at risk.
The waters at risk of losing protection help replenish water supplies, filter out pollution, work as buffers against storms and floods, and provide habitat for America's fish, birds and other wildlife. Global warming will mean increasingly intense storms, droughts and habitat loss. Having healthy wetlands, rivers and streams will be essential in helping people and wildlife survive the threats of global warming.
The matter is vital. Congress and the president should act to clearly restate the principle that the Clean Water Act applies to all the nation's waters -- those great and those small -- all of them together being the foundation of life for us all.
Larry Schweiger is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.