U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said she came to Milwaukee on Thursday to drum up support for her plan to restore Clean Water Act protections of headwaters of rivers because she had been told this city and its businesses understand the need for clean water.
After a morning tour of the Global Water Center in the Walker’s Point neighborhood, McCarthy told local media that her visit confirmed what she had heard: “Milwaukee gets it.”
During her day in the city, she met students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences on the inner harbor and toured Lakefront Brewery on the Milwaukee River north of downtown.
“I love beer and I love clean water,” McCarthy said after a brief brewery tour.
“This is going to be the freshwater capital of the world,” McCarthy said of Milwaukee in an afternoon meeting at Lakefront Brewery with city officials, representatives of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and members of local environmental groups.
At the Global Water Center earlier in the day, she had received a close-up glimpse inside the centerpiece of the city’s growing claim as a worldwide water technology leader.
Mission accomplished for an “awareness tour” led by Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee.
Taylor set out to show McCarthy how the center could provide a national model of bringing together corporations, university researchers and small innovative businesses “to solve the major water problems out there,” she said.
Inside one building, McCarthy was able to walk into offices of A.O. Smith and Badger Meter, where representatives talked about new water-related products being developed for international markets, then enter an entire floor of research space taken over by the UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences.
Clean water for beer
McCarthy met Mayor Tom Barrett at Lakefront Brewery, where she spoke about the need to protect water resources to sustain local businesses. Lakefront is a member of the national Brewers for Clean Water campaign.
In May 2007, Lakefront became the first brewery in the state and the first business in Milwaukee to receive the Travel Green Wisconsin certification from the state Department of Tourism. The certification recognizes the brewery’s efforts to reduce waste and energy consumption.
While protecting and restoring water resources benefits public health and the economy, “getting clean water is not easy,” she said.
Since the Clean Water Act became law in the 1970s, two out of every three waterways that were unsafe have been returned to clean conditions, McCarthy said.
Focus on headwaters
Her Milwaukee visit was aimed at drawing public attention to proposed amendments to the federal Clean Water Act that would restore water quality protection to seasonal streams and small wetlands that are upstream of and connected to larger creeks, rivers and lakes.
Those headwaters had been protected in the past, but a few U.S. Supreme Court decisions going back to 2001 left state and federal regulators, and landowners, unsure of whether federal law could be enforced to restrict the impact on those upstream bodies of water.
Fully 60% of the nation’s streams and wetlands now lack clear protection from pollution or destruction under the Clean Water Act, according to McCarthy.
Through their connection to larger downstream bodies of water, these headwaters serve valuable roles of filtering pollutants, storing floodwaters and recharging groundwater supplies, she said.
An estimated 117 million Americans get their drinking water from streams that are not fully protected, McCarthy said.
The Supreme Court decisions guided the proposed changes to the law, she said. The law applies to more than just waters that are “navigable,” according to the court, so the proposal restores protection to intermittent streams and rivulets in the headwaters if there is a significant connection to downstream, navigable waters, she said.
The proposal would not apply to farm ponds or ditches that are not connected to downstream rivers, according to McCarthy.