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Water Wars

Few question the need for clean waterwaysand safe drinking water. But the controversy and litigation involved in attaining those goals is increasing and sometimes makes the ultimate objectives harder to reach. Examples abound from the lead problem in Flint, Mich.’s drinking water supply to the protracted processes to reach agreement on the Lake Champlain and Chesapeake Bay cleanups. Water woes often lead to water wars, with the Clean Water Act (CWA) frequently at the center of battle.

The Environmental Protection Agency is sued over the CWA by those who think the agency isn’t doing enough nearly as often as by those who contend that the EPA is overreaching. Those two sides are typically represented by, respectively conservation interests and development and agriculture interests. Whatever CWA challenges pertain to, the basis is often jurisdictional or has a jurisdictional aspect—including in Flint.

“The case points to the problem of relying solely on states to implement federal laws, including the CWA,” says Professor Pat Parenteau. “The EPA failed to take aggressive action because the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality told it to butt out. Some of these more serious episodes like Flint are going to create a pushback against people who say the federal government shouldn’t be involved in these matters.”