GREENSBORO, N.C. --Strong, innovative legislation to tackle the polluted runoff from America's watersheds was unveiled at the BASS Masters Classic held here last month. A diverse group of several hundred anglers, fishery administrators, and agricultural executives met here to discuss and rally around the Fishable Waters Act (FWA) aimed at cleaning up the remaining unfishable/unswimmable waterways and restoring lost fishing opportunities.
"Twenty-five years after the Clean Water Act, 40 percent of our waters remain not swimmable or fishable. We have a huge task still ahead of us if we are to restore the aquatic capacity of this nation," said Mike Hayden, former governor of Kansas and president of the American Sportfishing Association, which is spearheading the effort.
"The FWA could be the major legislation that sets the agenda as we move into the year 2000 and beyond," Pearlie Reed, Chief of the Natural Resource Conservation Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.
The Fishable Waters Coalition will present the act to Congress as an amendment to the federal Clean Water Act, which, after several years of delay, should be reauthorized in 1999. Members of the coalition include B.A.S.S., the American Fisheries Society, Izaak Walton League, Trout Unlimited, Pacific Rivers Council, International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Congressional Sportsmen Foundation, and the National Corn Growers Association.
FWA focuses on voluntary actions and financial incentives to stop runoff of silt and other pollutants, and improve fish habitat, with leadership provided by local watershed councils, made up of all interests, who live, work and recreate in those watersheds. Federal and state agencies would provide project funds and expertise for tasks such as monitoring. Polluted runoff -- also known as nonpoint-source pollution -- is today's leading cause of water quality problems, with agriculture and urban sprawl the leading sources. Fertilizers, pesticides, and animal wastes are among the major pollutants.
Although it has done little to address runoff from farms, ranches and cities, the original Clean Water Act of 1972 has done a good job of stopping point- source pollution from industries and municipal sewage treatment plants, according to Reed.
"A B.A.S.S. tournament held on the Potomac River in 1994 is evidence of the success of this important legislation," said Mike Dombeck, chief of the U.S. Forest Service. "Anglers brought in 430 five-fish limits."
"Also, it has stopped billions of pounds of pollutants and decreased by one- fourth the rate of wetlands loss. Since 1982, erosion has decreased by one- third. But much remains to be done," Domback added.
Evidence of that decrease is provided by the fact that 35 percent of freshwater fish, 37 .9 percent of amphibians, 50 percent of crawfish, and 56 percent of freshwater mussels are critically imperiled, imperiled or considered vulnerable, according to a 1997 report by The Nature Conservancy, said Domback.
Some want the reauthorized Clean Water Act to include mandatory regulations that will force farmers, ranchers, and cities to stop the runoff or face stiff financial penalties. But coalition members believe the carrot is preferable to the stick, which is why agriculture leaders also attended the rally and voiced their support for local watershed councils and the intent of the Fishable Waters Act.
"Corn growers are committed to leaving the world better than they found it, and our association's policy is to promote actions that benefit the environment," said Wallie Hardie, chairman of the National Corn Growers Association.
"Protection of private property rights is a must if curbing nonpoint-source pollution is to succeed," he continued. "And there must be people out there willing to work with us to help the fish."
Just how effective farmers, anglers, and others working together can be attested to by Jim Martin, assistant director for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
A national leader in the movement, Oregon now has 80 local watershed councils, Martin said.
"We've got an 8-year record that gives me hope that we can deal with non-point runoff in a positive dialogue, without beating each other up," he added. "This idea works."
Speakers encouraged B.A.S.S. Federation members and others in attendance to voice their support for the Fishable Waters Act to their senators and representatives as November's 1998 elections draw ever closer.
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