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42nd Birthday: A Watershed Moment for the Clean Water Act

PHOTO: Fishermen with a Tillamook Bay Chinook taken on spinners in the middle bay on Tuesday. Fall Chinook are among the most stable wild salmon populations in Oregon, largely because they don't spend as much time in fresh water streams as others. Photo courtesy of Bob Rees.
PHOTO: Fishermen with a Tillamook Bay Chinook taken on spinners in the middle bay on Tuesday. Fall Chinook are among the most stable wild salmon populations in Oregon, largely because they don't spend as much time in fresh water streams as others. Photo courtesy of Bob Rees.
October 16, 2014

PORTLAND, Ore. - Every Oregonian who turns on a faucet or casts a fishing line has a stake in what happens with the Clean Water Act.

The federal law turns 42 on Saturday, and sportsmen and conservation groups are pushing to strengthen it. The EPA is proposing an update to the Act after court cases and judicial re-interpretations have made it unclear whether some smaller streams and wetlands qualify for Clean Water Act protection.

Bob Rees, executive director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, says it might be easy to take decades of Clean Water Act progress for granted - but fishermen know how important the details are.

"It's hard to say we would go back to the days when rivers were flammable - I just don't see that happening," says Rees. "But it's time to pay attention to the smaller intricacies that have created some of the problems we currently see, which are excessive water temperatures and disappearing wetlands."

The EPA estimates about half of Oregon streams won't qualify for Clean Water Act protection without the proposed update. About 700,000 people have commented in support of the proposal. Chief opponents to the proposal, thus far, have been mining and industrial agriculture interests. The comment period ends mid-November.

Oregon's water concerns vary by region. On the coast, headwater streams are needed for drinking-water supply, and wetlands for flood control, while Southern Oregon is gripped by the same drought as California. In Central and Eastern Oregon, fish and wildlife compete with farms and ranches for scarce water. Rees says it might be easier to understand a fisherman's point of view if the issue is stated like a rancher might describe it.

"It's common sense," he says. "Rivers need water. For every acre of water that we have, we grow 'X' number of fish, depending on water temperatures and habitat quality. So the more water you have, the more 'pastureland' you have for cold water fish."

Rees notes fishing is a billion-dollar business in Oregon.

According to polling by the National Wildlife Federation, Americans consisently rank clean water at the top of their list of environmental concerns.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR