Hydrologists, environmentalists, water planners, government and agriculture industry leaders have been warning for years that clean water would be the greatest single problem facing the nation -- and the world -- in the years ahead.
As if recent devastating droughts were not problem enough when it comes to water issue woes, adding to concerns in the U.S. this year is ongoing controversy of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) new Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) Rule, an amendment to the Clean Water Act that gives the federal government more authority over water within federal borders, including water located on private property and land use rights associated with those waters.
Sixteen U.S. states have filed lawsuits against the federal government over the issue, which many farm groups argue is a violation of not only private property rights but also the U.S. Constitution and the question of authority over land use in general.
Farm support groups, environmental groups and state officials are teaming up in a rare effort demanding federal accountability, specifically accountability of the EPA, for failing to manage an escalating problem associated with toxic waters created by more than a century of what they term "irresponsible and often haphazard" mining operations across the nation, especially in Western states.
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This latest development was prompted by last week's report of a toxic surge of heavy metal water that escaped Colorado's Gold King Mine into the Animas River and which, by some reports, has already reached Lake Mead. The 100-mile-long torrent the yellow toxic water that traveled down the river included lead, arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals created concern for aquatic, animal and human life and possibly peripheral damage to agriculture production, livestock and wildlife resulting from contaminated ponds and irrigation water.
To complicate matters, the current toxic mine spill isn't the first such incident and officials say it won't be the last. EPA says more than 48,000 abandoned mines have been inventoried through the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM's) Abandoned Mine Lands program. That program has been evaluating leaking mine wastewater for 50-plus years, but in spite of numerous reports and multiple plans of action designed to clean up toxic mine sites, only a handful of projects have been addressed.
With the release of toxic water from Gold King and other abandoned mines in the Colorado High Country, EPA is attempting to smooth over potential adverse effects of last weeks escape of toxic water. While EPA officials admit that the toxic metals included in last week's release into rivers and streams in southern Colorado far exceeded government exposure limits to aquatic and human life, they say that the toxic effect would have been diluted over the 300-mile course downstream into Lake Mead so that safety and health issues would be minimized. EPA reports that treated water from downstream rivers and lakes is safe for use as drinking water.
But Utah Department of Environmental Quality officials warned residents in parts of the state near the Colorado border not to drink the water until state officials tested and certified that drinking water in suspect areas was indeed safe for human and animal consumption.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says the agency takes "full responsibility” and announced EPA will pay for any damages associated with the leak. She says the EPA has released $500,000 to help supply clean water for crop irrigation and livestock in the northwestern New Mexico area adversely affected by this latest spill.
The Colorado mine spill highlights the growing problems of the EPA and the federal government to deal with water issues. While Administration officials and supporters of WOTUS argue the proposed final rule is a step in the right direction that will eventually lead to more responsible control and management of water nationwide, not everyone agrees federal control of all water in the U.S. is essential for an appropriate solution.
The latest opposition to the rule includes a lobbying group representing ranchers in Oregon who have joined a lawsuit contesting the proposed rule. The Oregon Cattlemen's Association, the state's most prominent ranching advocacy group, added its name in July to the same lawsuit.
As it stands now, the new WOTUS rule will be finalized Aug. 28. The deadline has promoted a flurry of litigation against the EPA in hopes of preventing the rule from becoming final.
In all, at least 27 states as well as agriculture, development and manufacturing industry groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have filed lawsuits against the EPA over the issue. Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi filed a joint lawsuit in a Houston federal court in late June, calling EPA’s final rule “an unconstitutional and impermissible expansion of federal power over the states and their citizens and property owners.”
While the EPA has the authority to regulate water quality, the suit charges that Congress has not granted the agency the power to regulate water and land use.
Last week's addition of 16 more states to the legal woes of EPA represent the continuing saga into the escalating problems associated with clean water availability and use in the United States.
Government and industry planners, policy makers, and university researchers continue to struggle with the issue of clean water in hopes of finding solutions to what some say is the most pressing problem facing the nation in the 21st century.