On December 11, 2018, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) and the Department of the Army
announced they are proposing changes in federal authority under the Clean Water Act. Most of my naturalist
friends and colleagues will probably be shocked at what I have to say. Sometimes we need to be shocked.
I was born in the year WW2 ended and raised in the South Carolina Piedmont. I grew up loving the natural world.
I observed the birds and bees, and flowers and trees. I often studied how rainwater ran from the land, formed
channels, and ponded. I caught turtles in creeks. I also saw how municipal and industrial wastewater discharges
polluted our rivers with human excrement, condoms, sanitary products, chemicals, and dyes. I also liked studying
fire, electricity, wind, and space.
After high school, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Physics and then served my country in the military. Near
the end of my four-year service commitment, I decided to make a career in helping protect our natural environment.
I returned to school to obtain a Master of Science Degree in Environmental Systems Engineering in 1972. The principal
emphasis of the university program was upon water and wastewater treatment; however, I also studied economics, planning,
and water resources management. Following graduation, I went to work for the South Carolina Pollution Control Agency
in developing river basin-wide planning for water quality management.
In 1972, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was substantially amended and represented a major takeover
of state water quality programs. The act established the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES)
to authorize EPA issuance of discharge permits; expanded requirements for the discharge of dredged or fill material
into navigable waters; initiated movement to regulate control of non-point source pollution; and authorized a program
for provision of federal grant monies to municipalities to build or improve wastewater treatment facilities.
Like all revolutions, changes tend to be pushed to extremes and many people are injured; enemies are made;
and grudges are formed. All issues become win or lose decisions. Social revolutions are often described as a swinging
pendulum. Unfortunately, human history is filled with many exaggerated swings which keep wounding us for decades
The expansion of the federal role in water pollution control was justified under the Commerce clause, provision of
the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 8) that authorizes Congress ?to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and
among the several States, and with Indian Tribes." This expansion was itself based upon prior use of the commerce clause
to justify federal regulation of "navigable waters" of the United States. This was a "heady time" for social change in
our country. The EPA began using very liberal modifications to the accepted meaning of "navigable." The term was changed
to include any water passage that eventually flowed into a traditional navigable water or into the ocean. This definition
is like the nonsense concept that hurricanes are caused by the flap of a tropical butterfly's wing! When applied to water
pollution, it can be argued that a child?s spit-up on your lawn is a source of water pollution that the federal government
has the power to regulate!
We are currently experiencing such changes in social swing. The proposal by the Trump administration to make major changes
in the applicability of federal law in water pollution control is one. Federal applicability was extended far too liberally
in 1972. All of us should use this proposal as an opportunity to rationally reassess what was done and find a more appropriate
response. Regrettably, I only see and hear armies on the right and left gathering for combat while flying red flags of no quarter.
Please let us not continue to make the same mistakes over and over!