What are the politics of water? Where is the greatest threat to the environment? And what will it take to stem the flood of regressive political actions in the increasingly complex battleground of courts, shifting laws, international trade agreements, executive orders, and state and local rulemaking?
Waterkeepers come from all different walks of life with different family and economic histories, political leanings, and regional conceptions of the world. There is, however, a common thread among Waterkeepers that sticks out like a bright red fiber on a gray flannel background. That commonality is a commitment to protect our life-sustaining environment and enhance the place where we all live. Waterkeepers also share the idea that their individual efforts will coalesce together into a blanket of protections across the nation and world. Waterkeepers share the methods and tools they deploy to achieve the goals of a clean, productive, and livable world. These long-standing tools, created by government, are threatened by polluters with an aggressive political agenda to shelve them away. In order to help stem the tide, environmentalists need to be more diverse in their approach to getting things done, or not done, as some cases may be. It is time for Waterkeepers and people of a similar ilk to take the plunge into being citizen legislators.
Waterkeepers can respond or act proactively to applications, proposals, and dramatic events that impact our waters with creativity and the tools our laws provide. They now, however, have to fight the battle on many fronts including a changing political landscape at all levels of government. The political landscape is always in flux. Laws that provide protection for our natural life support system can be erased or weakened by legislative changes or executive orders that often go unnoticed by the public. The streams of bills on federal, state, and local levels are refreshed each session cycle; some are positive, some have possibilities, and others are hurtful. The Clean Water Act and other federal bodies of law are under constant attack from various interest groups. Executive orders can nullify the effects of protective measures and in many cases the citizens are none the wiser.
A Waterkeeper's greatest asset is the people's desire for a world with clean air and water. Most polls show that the public overwhelmingly supports strong environmental laws including provisions for citizens' empowerment, as in the citizen suit provision of the Clean Water Act. Enlightened laws like these make it possible for Waterkeepers to do their job. The public supports protection and enhancement of the environment. But in the daily toil of life, the public misses the cleverly veiled attacks on protections. In legislatures across the country, the climate that promotes the rolling back of protections is at an all time high. The environmental protections passed into law in the 1970s would not even get a reading in the Congress of today.
Entering my seventh term as a State Legislator in Connecticut, and being Soundkeeper for Long Island Sound, I have some perspectives on the legislative process. In a word or two - it ain't easy. Anyone who has made the transition from either direction (coming from a policymaking wing of government to being a Waterkeeper, or from a Waterkeeper to government) will instantly recognize the different ground rules and responsibilities for the different roles. Performing both duties concurrently adds to the complexity. No longer afforded the luxury to say I love or hate any proposal, I am now compelled to ask deeper questions. Whatever I decide can't be singularly ideological; it must be functional. Producing legislation that will pass on the floor, be signed by the Governor, and work as law is both the burden and opportunity facing a citizen legislator.
This means stepping into a crossfire. It is a task and a challenge that would cause Solomon to pull his hair out.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2005 edition of Waterkeeper Magazine. Subscriptions are available from Lake Ontario Waterkeeper with a donation of $50 or more. Reduced rates are available for students and non-profit organizations. Send your inquiries to email@example.com