This story was updated on September 11th to provide further clarification.


Protecting our waterways from Buffalo to the Bronx is a never-ending job. Advocacy groups are sounding the alarm about legislation passed Tuesday night in the U.S. House of Representatives which attempts to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from clarifying what waterways are protected by the federal Clean Water Act.

Specifically, the EPA is seeking to establish that source waters, such as seasonal streams and wetlands, which feed larger bodies of water, are also protected. The House of Representatives has moved to stop the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from clarifying the scope of the Act, describing it as “regulatory over-reach.”

The legislation passed by the House could affect over half of New York’s streams, which also help to supply drinking water sources. Approximately 117 million people – one in three Americans – get drinking water from public systems that rely in part on seasonal streams, says the EPA.

A Clarification Years in the Making

Determining Clean Water Act protection for streams and wetlands became “confusing and complex following Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006,” argued the EPA in a March 25th press release. “For nearly a decade, members of Congress, state and local officials, industry, agriculture, environmental groups, and the public asked for a rulemaking to provide clarity.”

The proposed rule, says the agency, clarifies that under the Clean Water Act and “based on the science” waterways that “form the foundation of the nation’s water resources” are protected.

This includes most seasonal and rain-dependent streams, and wetlands near rivers and streams.

“The health of rivers, lakes, bays, and coastal waters depend on the streams and wetlands where they begin,” stated the EPA.

“The proposed definitions of waters will apply to all Clean Water Act programs. It does not protect any new types of waters that have not historically been covered under the…Act and is consistent with the Supreme Court’s more narrow reading of Clean Water Act jurisdiction,” the EPA noted.

Some New York Reps Voted Against EPA Clarification

Michael Grimm, who represents sections of Brooklyn and Staten Island, voted in favor of striking down the EPA’s clarification. Carolyn Maloney and Nydia Velazquez did not vote. To see how all of New York’s representatives voted, click here.

The White House argued in a statement released Monday that “the [House’s] bill…would further delay any action to clarify the scope of the CWA for up to two years by requiring State and local governments to engage in further consultations even though they were engaged and consulted during the development of the proposed rule and they continue to be consulted as the agencies proceed with rulemaking.”

If similar legislation passes in the Senate, the Obama administration has pledged to veto it.

On August 14th, advocacy group Environment New York reported that it delivered 30,000 public comments to U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in response to the proposed legislation. Senator Gillibrand’s and Senator Schumer’s office were not available for comment.

A State with a Strong Connection to Its Waterways

Environment New York is shining a spotlight on the relationship between New Yorkers and our local waterways. New York City alone has over 500 miles of coastline.

Every year, over 50 million residents and tourists visit New York’s 127 state parks -and 6 national parks- with waterways.

And almost a million residents use New York waterways for boating and fishing alone, according to a Summer Fun Index released by Environment New York last week.

“Instead of siding with our rivers and the New Yorkers who love to fish, boat and swim in them,” said Environment New York spokeswoman Sarah Vitti, “today Congress is siding with the polluters.”

“Forty years ago, two-thirds of America’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters were unsafe for fishing and swimming. Because of the Clean Water Act, that number has been cut in half. However, one-third of the nation’s waters still do not meet standards,” said the EPA.

“America’s waters and wetlands are valuable resources that must be protected today and for future generations,” the agency added.