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New Bush Policy Weakens Clean Water Act, Threatens Nation's Waters
By Ananda Hirsch
Environmental Quality Program

Every spring the Devil's Punchbowl fills with water and then blossoms into a learning site for children in the nature classes at the Cora Hartshorn Arboretum in New Jersey. As the kids learn, the Devil's Punchbowl is a vernal pool that is home to many different organisms, including endangered fairy shrimp.

birds and canoe
Too Clean? A new Bush administration policy removes Clean Water Act protection from many of the country's waters. According to an EPA estimate, 20 percent of the nation's remaining wetlands, plus many small streams and ponds, may now be subjected to pollution discharges, dredging, filling, and other assaults.

When I taught classes at the Arboretum, I was amazed that organisms could survive in a pool that was only wet for a few months of the year. If I was surprised, imagine how fascinated the children were.

The creatures that flourish in this vernal pool are lucky; the Devil's Punchbowl is on private property owned by people concerned with conservation. Other vernal pools and water bodies across the country are not so fortunate. In January 2003, the Bush administration announced that it will no longer use the Clean Water Act to protect many of America's waters from pollution discharges, dredging, filling, and other assaults.

The administration's new policy removes Clean Water Act protections from many of the nation's so-called "isolated" waters-small streams, ponds, and wetlands. The administration considers the waters "isolated" because they do not have any visible connection to other waters. However, many scientists doubt that any waters can be considered truly isolated. Harm done to a body of water can damage the larger waters that it is connected to, even if those connections are intermittent or underground.

According to the EPA, 20 percent of the United States' remaining wetlands, some 20 million acres, plus many small streams and ponds, may now be excluded from the Clean Water Act. Developers will now be able to fill many wetlands and small streams without a permit, and mining companies, industrial waste dischargers, and municipal sewage treatment plants will no longer need permits to dump wastes into many waters.

For 30 years, the Clean Water Act has provided a safeguard against the dumping of waste into our waters and the dredging and filling of wetlands. Today slightly more than half of our waters meet clean water standards. "The Clean Water Act is one of our most successful environmental laws," says Robin Mann, chair of the Sierra Club's Wetlands Taskforce. "The Bush administration should focus on enforcing that law, not weakening it."

The risks associated with removing Clean Water Act protection from so-called isolated streams, wetlands, and ponds include:

  • More Pollution. The EPA's most recent data show that the nation's waters are already getting dirtier and almost half of our rivers, streams, lakes, and coastal estuaries are not safe for fishing, swimming, or boating.
  • Threats to public health. People may come into contact with bacteria, pathogens, toxics, and other pollutants from waters that are no longer protected from industrial discharges.
  • Increased flooding. Once filled, wetlands-nature's sponges-will no longer be able to absorb excess water.
  • Depleted drinking water sources. Water sources like the Ogallala aquifer in Texas that are recharged by playa lakes and other wetland and stream systems could be depleted.

Threats to endangered or threatened wildlife species. Forty-three percent of endangered or threatened wildlife species, including the whooping crane, rely on wetlands for survival. More than half the ducks in North America rely on wetlands as their breeding habitat.

"The Bush administration's actions are the biggest threat to the Clean Water Act in many years," says Mann. "Sierra Club members, many of whom are actively engaged in efforts to protect and restore streams, wetlands, and other waters, will need to play a crucial role in opposing this assault on clean water. The Clean Water Act should continue to protect all the nation's waters."

Take Action: Contact your senators and representative. Urge them to protect the waters in your region. To contact them via e-mail, visit our Take Action system.

Send a comment to the EPA before April 16. For more information and a sample letter, visit

Send a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. For a sample letter, visit volved.asp.

Join with members of your community in a local water monitoring program to measure the health of a local stream or wetland. To learn more, visit

Join our e-mail list and keep up to date on campaign developments by sending an e-mail to

For more information, visit or contact Ananda Hirsch at

Oil, Gas Drilling Proposed for 'Heart' of Red Desert

At the heart of Wyoming's 8-million acre Red Desert-the largest unprotected and undeveloped high-elevation desert left in North America-is the 620,000-acre Jack Morrow Hills Study Area, a desert landscape of multi-colored buttes, rolling sagebrush bluffs, mysterious hoodoos, and the largest active sand dune system in the country. The area is home to 350 species of wildlife, including some 50,000 pronghorn antelope, a rare desert elk herd, mountain lions, coyotes, golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, and wild horses.

red desert
To Drill, or Not to Drill? A draft management plan released by the Bureau of Land Management would allow several hundred new oil and gas wells to be drilled in the Jack Morrow Hills Study Area in the Red Desert.

Unfortunately, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently decided to give priority to oil and gas development in its draft management plan for the Jack Morrow Hills Study Area. The draft plan would allow several hundred new oil and gas wells to be drilled in sensitive wildlife habitat and would endanger Steamboat Mountain, a Shoshone Indian holy site, and an ancient Native American buffalo jump hunt site. If finalized, the plan would ensure that a spiderweb of new roads, utility lines, and drilling rigs would slowly be woven through the Jack Morrow Hills Study Area over the next 30 years, destroying the wild character of this spectacular desert.

A coalition of conservation groups, hunting groups, businesses, and ranchers in Wyoming has developed the Citizens' Wildlife and Wildlands Alternative to the BLM's draft management plan. The Citizens' Wildlife and Wildlands Alternative would ensure that oil and gas development do not destroy the natural beauty and ecological integrity of the Red Desert. This balanced plan would allow hunting and grazing to continue in a responsible way, while increasing protections for potential wilderness areas, Native American sacred areas, and pioneer trails. It would also ensure the long-term survival of the Red Desert elk herd, the pronghorn antelope herd, and other native wildlife.

Take Action: Demand a management plan that reflects the priorities of conservation and wildlife protection. To sign a petition online, visit www.thepetition and choose the "Red Desert Wildlife in Danger, Help Now!" petition. Or, send a letter to the BLM expressing your support for the Citizens' Wildlife and Wildlands Alternative for the Jack Morrow Hills supplemental draft plan. Write to: Renee Dana, Project Leader, BLM Rock Springs Field Office, 280 Highway 191 North, Rock Springs, WY 82901.

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