Nathan Johnson, Director of Public Lands, July 23, 2015
It is a bit of an understatement that this has been a wet summer so far in Ohio. The amount of rain we have seen has made us acutely aware of those small streams that we otherwise seem to take for granted. I’m talking about that little brook that trickles behind your house, or that tiny stream under that similarly tiny bridge you cross everyday on your way to work, or that creek that flows next to your uncle’s farm.
Many of these streams are unnamed, but we call them headwater streams. In fact, 69% of Ohio’s stream miles are small headwaters. These headwater streams are essential to downstream water quality and they play a vital role in filtering the sort of nutrient pollution that has lead to the Toledo water crisis and the contamination of a third of Columbus’ water supply this summer.
Seeing these headwater streams flow like they have this summer, you probably assume that the same laws that protect against pollution of Lake Erie, the Great Miami River, and Little Darby Creek protect against the pollution of these streams, too. However, decades of legal battles and complicated regulations have made it difficult to extend Clean Water Act protections to small streams.
In a historical move that OEC has been advocating for years, the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) recently issued a new rule clarifying the reach of the Clean Water Act to ensure the protection of headwater streams across the country. For Ohio, this rule should be seen as an essential weapon to help fight the ongoing battle to protect Ohioans from water pollution. Alas, just weeks ago, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, on behalf of the Kasich Administration, filed a lawsuit in federal court to block this rule instead.
The lawsuit is cloaked in the language of states’ rights, and suggests that it is Ohio that should be protecting these small streams, not the feds. This sounds good, perhaps, but years of seeing Ohio turn its back on taking the initiative to fully protect ALL of Ohio’s streams makes the sentiment appear hollow. The states’ rights rhetoric hides what I see as the lawsuit’s true purpose — to allow special interests to continue degrading and destroying Ohio’s water quality with little to no consequences to their bottom lines.
This is not about the state government preserving some mystical authority to be the sole guardian of Ohio’s water quality – it’s about stopping water protection entirely, plain and simple. The kicker here is that the Kasich Administration refuses to protect the state’s headwater streams, the very water bodies its lawsuit seeks sole custody of.
In 2013, the Administration killed a set of state rules that would have recognized these streams and conferred protections to them for the first time. The ill-fated rules were the result of more than a decade of scientific research by the Ohio EPA that established the significance of headwater streams to overall water quality in the state. Today, Ohio’s headwater streams remain largely unprotected.
The Ohio EPA and the US EPA have both accumulated mountains of evidence that demonstrate the importance of headwater streams. There is no question, scientifically, that these small streams need to be recognized in law and protected. US EPA has used this evidence to develop a rule that protects our smallest, yet vital streams. Ohio, on the other hand lets the science on headwater streams collect dust. The Kasich Administration must reverse its present course and protect Ohio’s headwater streams. Doing so is essential if Ohio is to enjoy healthy waterways and safe drinking water.