Water activists want paradigm shift from Obama


Over 100 U.S. water activists put their heads together in Fall 2008 and published a hefty, ambitious report called “A Blueprint for Clean Water.” The Waterkeeper Alliance report is directed at the incoming Obama administration, and proposes a whopping 58 reforms ranging from desalination to global warming.

Curling up with a cup of coffee and reading about the management of ballast water might not sound like your idea of a cozy Sunday afternoon, but the Blueprint is remarkably engaging. Each section is written by a different activist who cares passionately about his or her subject of expertise.  Some of the proposals tackle large issues, such as free trade and environmental justice. The section on dams calls for a paradigm shift in hydro:

Antiquated water laws and erroneous assumptions in science, economics and engineering have caused development that is not sustainable for the next century… Alternative solutions for managing our water supplies are urgently required to remove unnecessary dams, remove people from harm’s way, and to restore the free ecological services that rivers have always provided.

Other chapters target specific policies. The Clean Water Protection Act (H.R. 2169), for example, had its knees bashed in by the Bush administration when the definition of protected waterways was narrowed to exclude "isolated" waterways, putting many western  wetlands and intermittent streams at risk.  

In response to the notorious 2002 EPA and US Army Corps of Engineer reclassification of mining waste as “fill,” which allows it to be dumped in streams and lakes, Waterkeeper activists would like to see a less “confusing,” more inclusive definition, which is proposed in the Clean Water Restoration Act (H.R.2421). 

The act has been swatted down twice by Congress, but the Waterkeeper Alliance hopes that under the new administration it will have a better chance.

 Accomplishing only a handful of the 58 changes recommended by the Blueprint for Clean Water would be an impressive feat.  Among many other calls for increased environmental regulation, the report proposes that agricultural nonpoint source pollution and the use of pesticides near waterways be regulated by permit. Two of the boldest proposals are a ban on the production of toxic materials that cannot be reused or recycled, and “consideration of a ban on all mountain top mining operations.”

It’s a big pot of policy spaghetti, and it's too early to tell which proposals will stick when thrown against White House walls. Waterkeeper Alliance President Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was a candidate for the head of the EPA in the Obama administration, and his appointment would presumably have been a boon to the 58 objectives. 

However, Obama's appointment of Lisa Jackson to the EPA position, and more recently Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein as regulatory czar,  makes the future of water policy less predictable.

Sunstein is generally considered a liberal and shares Jackson's reputation as a pragmatist.  He has written extensively about the effects of fear on decision-making, especially in politics, and his skepticism applies equally to both ends of the political spectrum. 

Sunstein attacked the precautionary principle— a point of faith for many environmentalists--in a July 2008 Boston Globe article, and his nonchalance about many perceived environmental risks may disturb Waterkeepers hoping for a  tidal wave of regulation. 

However, if  number of publications or reputation count for anything, Sunstein has produced 454 written works... and has been described as a one-man think tank.  He is not a knee jerk ideologue, but a serious public intellectual, much like the journalist Samantha Power, whom he recently married. 

If "paradigm shifts" in water policy are what is required, it will take a brilliant, creative person to implement them, and like Obama, Sunstein has the goods.

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