As a fifth-generation rancher/farmer, business owner and advocate of Colorado’s rural economy, I know first-hand the importance of clean, reliable water to our way of life. That’s why I believe the 42nd anniversary of the Clean Water Act in October represents an important milestone for Colorado’s water resources.
If water is the lifeblood of agriculture, as is commonly pronounced, clean water would have to be its backbone. After all, it’s not just abundant, reliable water resources that we count on for our livelihoods, economy and health. That water must also be clean and safe.
Underscoring how far we’ve progressed as a state and nation on our water challenges, when the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 a full two-thirds of our waterways were too toxic for fishing and swimming — let alone drinking.
Some of our rivers, such as the Cuyahoga in Ohio, were so polluted from the chemicals and toxins being thoughtlessly dumped into them that they were literally catching on fire. Obviously no one wants to live near or rely on such waters. As such, the Clean Water Act passed Congress with bipartisan support to tackle these critical challenges.
Thanks to the Clean Water Act, we now have half as many polluted bodies of water as we did in the 1970s. Today most of us are able to drink from the tap and fish or swim the local river or lake without having to think too much about the safety of the water.
But we still have further to go.
Despite the success of the Clean Water Act, we have real water challenges ahead of us. For instance, one-third of American waterways are still too polluted for fishing, swimming or drinking. These toxic waterways are located in all regions of the country, including right here in Colorado.
One key to improving this situation is addressing critical loopholes in our water policies.
For instance, the Supreme Court severely hampered the effectiveness of the Clean Water Act in 2001 and 2006 rulings that limited protections just to waterways deemed “navigable.” As a result, countless miles of tributary and seasonal streams, rivers, wetlands — bodies of water that feed directly into our water supplies — have gone unprotected.
The politically motivated Supreme Court rulings are clearly against the spirit and intent of the Clean Water Act, and our water resources have suffered as a result. Adding insult to injury, as it turns out, such arbitrary water policies that are not based on logic, common sense or real-world realities are darn near impossible for agricultural water users to follow.
The good news is that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently targeted this harmful loophole, with its “Waters of the United States” rule. Under this proposal, the Clean Water Act will again account for the tributary, seasonal and adjacent bodies of water that feed directly into our water resources.
The new rule also maintains helpful exemptions for ranchers and farmers irrigating crops. Win-win landowner actions that lead to cleaner water, more sustainable farming practices and increased profits would also be incentivized.
Following the closing of the extended public comment period on the clean water rule on Nov. 14, Colorado’s congressional delegation should commit to ensuring that the EPA and the White House finalize the rule without delay.
Agricultural producers, rural communities and diverse water users across America are counting on it.
Alfonso Abeyta is a fifth-generation rancher and farmer born and reared on his family farm on the Conejos River near Antonito. He is the founder of Conejos County Clean Water, an advocacy group.