A dire threat to clean water in Texas

Photo by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson

The new Environmental Protection Agency rule that closes loopholes in the Clean Water Act is the single greatest victory for clean water in over a decade.

The rule, known as the Waters of the U.S. rule, guarantees federal safeguards to all of the headwaters and streams that help keep bodies of water like Barton Springs, the Colorado River and Galveston Bay clean. This rule restores protections to 143,000 miles of streams that feed the drinking water sources for 11.5 million Texas.

Despite this good news, many polluting industries, their trade associations and their allies in Austin and Washington oppose these and other safeguards for our waters and our environment.

It’s not hard to imagine why these companies and industry groups are working to stop the finalized rule from being properly implemented. The oil and gas industry has thousands of miles of pipelines running through wetlands. Coal companies, which are dumping the waste from their mining into streams, stand to benefit if the Clean Water Act fails to protect smaller waterways. Powerful developers want to pave over wetlands without restrictions. And corporate agribusiness generates millions of pounds of manure and other animal waste every year, far too much of which winds up in our waters.

Indeed, many of the same industrial polluters dumping millions of pounds of pollution into our waterways spend millions on elections and lobbying decision-makers every year. According to a 2015 Environment Texas report, the 10 parent companies that reported the most industrial dumping in 2012 spent more than $53 million on lobbying in 2014 and contributed more than $9.4 million to candidates for federal office in the 2014 election cycle.

It’s no wonder why their allies in Austin and Washington are stumbling over themselves to help them.

The U.S. House has voted multiple times to block the Clean Water Rule, and both the House and Senate are poised to block the rule as part of an EPA spending bill. Now, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller have filed suit in Galveston, along with the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Petroleum Institute, the National Mining Association and many other groups representing the biggest polluters in the nation.

Fortunately, Texans are taking action to urge decision-makers to protect our waterways.

In a public comment period that ended last fall, everyday Texans submitted more than 34,000 public comments in support of the Obama administration’s plan to restore Clean Water Act protections to smaller waterways across the country, far outnumbering opponents of the plan. Support came from all kinds of Texans, including elected officials, brewers, kayakers, anglers and small-business owners.

And despite claims from mega-factory farms that misleadingly and conveniently ignore the very clear agriculture exemptions in the Clean Water Act, farmers and ranchers in Texas have embraced the rule. Hugh Fitzsimons, a bison rancher in South Texas who owns the historic Shape Ranch, has been a vocal supporter of the new rule, saying, "Our customers expect quality, and that means raising our bison naturally, where they eat native grasses and drink clean water."

Protecting clean water shouldn’t be a political issue. Clean water is vital to the health of the public and the health of our economy. Especially in a state like Texas, our waterways and wetlands are enormous economic drivers. They play a huge role in the success of our fishing, hunting, agriculture, recreation, energy and manufacturing industries.

And while we’re lucky to have leaders like U.S. Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson and Lloyd Doggett, who have stood up for clean water and carried our message to the nation’s capital, those in the Texas delegation who have sided with big polluters ought to know that Texans are watching.

Will our elected officials side with ordinary Texans and the industries that rely on clean water? Or with powerful polluters and their Washington lobbyists who will do anything to avoid these rules?

Disclosure: Hugh Fitzsimons is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Sara E. Smith

Staff attorney for Environment Texas