Water sports

In 2001 the United States Supreme Court ruled that many non-navigable, "isolated" waters are not covered by pollution protections in the Clean Water Act. Five years later the country's top court considered the issue again. This time it split 4-1-4, with three different and seemingly conflicting opinions about which bodies of water are subject to federal regulations. Environmentalists fear that these rulings, coupled with recent determinations by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, have put the nation's waterways at serious risk. Since 2004 environmental groups have been lobbying Congress to pass the Clean Water Restoration Act, arguing that such legislation is needed to ensure that the original intent of the landmark 1972 legislation is enforced.

Tomorrow morning Darrell Gerber, program coordinator for Clean Water Action Alliance of Minnesota, will testify on behalf of the legislation at Capitol Hill. The hearing is before the House's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, chaired by Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar. Gerber believes that the bill's prospects are greater than at any time in the past four years. "This is by far the most consideration that it's received," he says.

Gerber points to two Minnesota lakes in highlighting the dangers posed by changes in how the Clean Water Act is enforced. Boyer Lake is a 310-acre body of water in Becker County, roughly 35 miles east of the North Dakota border, that's popular with walleye fisherman. Bah Lake covers 70 acres on the border between Grant and Douglas counties, and is typically covered with up to 10 feet of water.

The local Army Corps office initially determined that these lakes are no longer subject to federal protections from pollutants. This decision, however, was subsequently overturned. "The fact that federal officials first concluded that the Clean Water Act did not cover large and productive bodies of water shows that the threat to so-called 'isolated' waters is significant," writes Gerber in his prepared testimony for tomorrow's hearing.

Across the country, Clean Water Action estimates that more than 50 percent of the country's streams, representing over 1.8 million miles of waterways, could be at risk of losing protection, depending on how the loosened strictures are interpreted. Such changes could potentially impact the drinking water of 110-million people. "If we really want to meet the goals of the Clean Water Act we have to cover these waters," Gerber says.

You can watch the hearing starting at 10 a.m. tomorrow on the committee's web site.