Protection for our rivers and streams is long overdue

By Ben Kurtz

It’s often said that drag is a fly fisherman’s greatest enemy. The truth, however, is that a wet fly or heavy drag is irrelevant if you don’t have clean water to fish. Our lakes, rivers, streams and the fish that inhabit them are all extremely sensitive to pollution. And right now, many of these streams all across the country are being threatened by dirty groundwater stemming from coal mines.

Despite this, it’s been nearly a decade since the Department of Interior has updated its Stream Protection Rule — an inadequate, Reagan-era regulation governing impacts to waterways from coal mining which was weakened even further under the Bush administration.

For the last six years, DOI has been engaged in the process of updating and gathering input on the rule, with the ultimate goal of revising it to make it more effective, in line with the challenges our waters face today as well as the law Congress passed in the 1970s to create it. While it has been a long time coming, that process now appears to be coming to a close.

Once finalized, the revised rule would establish common-sense new protections that would safeguard the health of our waterways, and by extension, the communities that are impacted by them. For example, the rule would strengthen baseline requirements for water quality testing to ensure that coal mining operations are not polluting streams in a manner similar to that of the old hardrock mines throughout the West.

In addition, the revised standards would require coal mines to develop a plan for how to protect fish and wildlife while also putting in place measures that will reduce impacts on habitats and improve reclamation of mines that have shuttered.

These proposed changes are just common sense: The rule is low-cost (independent analysts have calculated that the safeguards would cost between 1 and 60 cents per ton of coal that’s mined) and while the revisions are expected to result in cleaner waters and improved public health, its impact on jobs will be slim to none.

Still, the issuing of a strong final Stream Protection Rule is not a foregone conclusion, as the coal industry is intent on maintaining the status quo. Were that to transpire it would mean streams that are at greater risk of being polluted with coal mine waste and runoff.

Taking all of this into account, it’s clear that whether you’re a fly fisherman or not, the revised rule is something we should all support. Cleaner waters not only mean better fishing but cleaner and healthier communities too.

Speaking on behalf of my fellow fly fishermen, I applaud the Department of Interior for its ongoing efforts to enact sensible safeguards that protect the federal lands we all support and enjoy. It’s time for DOI to push the Stream Protection Rule update across the finish line so we fisherman can go back to worrying about the little things — like what color fly to cast — rather than fretting over groundwater pollution that threatens our vibrant ecosystems and jeopardizes our health.

Ben Kurtz is the co-owner of Denver-based outdoor gear manufacturer Fishpond and a board member of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, which advocates for and promotes the sustained growth of the fly fishing industry.


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