Clean water changes could sully Western streambeds

 

Western rivers might be left high and dry — and polluted — if Bush administration officials push through a rule change to the Clean Water Act. In November, a senior government official leaked a draft of the proposed change to the Los Angeles Times. Under the new rule, the Clean Water Act would apply only to seas, navigable rivers and their tributary streams and adjacent wetlands. It would exclude ephemeral rivers that run less than six months of the year.

For Western states, the change would be monumental, since more than three-fourths of the region’s rivers are ephemeral and less than 2 percent are considered navigable. Steve Malloch of the Western Water Alliance, a regional water conservation coalition, says the draft rule would allow the city of Phoenix to dump untreated urban wastewater from 1.3 million people into the Gila River without any regulation.

The rule change would also allow coalbed methane drillers to unload polluted discharge into seasonally dry washes — and to sidestep an October Supreme Court ruling that the discharge is wastewater subject to the Clean Water Act (HCN, 11/10/03: Follow-up).

“This is one of the most sweeping changes we’ve seen yet,” says Joan Mulhern, a senior lawyer for Earthjustice. “A lot of industries — the home builders, the mining industry — don’t want to have to get Clean Water Act permits.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers — both of which are responsible for enforcing the Clean Water Act — refuse to comment on the leaked document, and say it could be a year before they formally propose a new rule.