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Logging roads and the Clean Water Act

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Erosion Illinois_webalert.jpgLogging roads are a major source of pollution in our rivers and streams. They push sediment into water, suffocating salmon and sullying drinking water sources when they are constructed. They also divert sediment into clean water sources, particularly when being actively used by logging trucks. It seems only fair that this industry would have to comply with the Clean Water Act like so many other industries in America. 

The Problem

Salvage webalert.jpgClean, drinkable water is a finite resource—increasingly important to preserve and protect, not only for agricultural, industrial, ecological, and recreational uses, but also for safe and healthy human consumption. More than 180 million Americans depend on headwaters from both protected and unprotected forests for their drinking water.

Sediment and other pollutants discharged from logging roads pose a problem because they threaten the health of endangered species and delicate ecosystems while also threatening the quality of clean public drinking water supplies. Sediment associated with logging is a well-documented threat to water quality.  On logging roads actively used for timber hauling, logging trucks grind up the gravel road surface, turning it into fine sediment that is often then transported by stormwater to rivers and streams.

Such chronic sedimentation has detrimental effects such as smothering fish eggs and increasing turbidity, which disrupts fish feeding, breeding, and migrating behavior (especially for salmon, many of which are at risk of extinction). Chronic sedimentation effectively chokes the life out of cold-water rivers and streams by decreasing dissolved oxygen levels, increasing temperature, and destroying essential habitat.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that each year over 2.7 million people participate in hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching in Washington State alone, contributing over $3 billion to that state’s economy. Across the West, the harm and reduction to fish could translate into a major economic loss for tourism, the fishing industry, state wildlife agencies, and the local communities that depend on these revenues.

In Oregon, based on information the state submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2006, sediment was the second leading cause of pollution in rivers and streams, accounting for almost 12,000 miles of streams threatened or impaired. While not all of this sediment was generated by logging roads, the roads are a major contributor of sediment in the West due to an enormous road system that is poorly maintained.

The Solution

Alan Cressler Muddy Culvertwebalert.jpgThe Clean Water Act’s NPDES permit program provides the right tool to address this problem. As Congress intended, the Clean Water Act is an extremely effective mechanism for reducing pollution and protecting clean water.  NPDES permits are proven, effective, efficient, and manageable by state and federal agencies.

EPA and the states have crafted workable permit solutions to handle many different types of pollutant discharge issues many times in the past, including dealing with complex municipal storm water issues, runoff from industrial facilities (including associated roads) and runoff from construction sites larger than 1 acre (including associated roads). Creating a specific permit to deal with logging roads should be no different. EPA and state agencies must move forward now to develop NPDES storm water permits for logging roads.

Logging companies should not get a free pass

The implementation of this ruling will include a cost to the regulated industry, but the process of regulating and monitoring pollution under a NPDES permit will not only create sustainable and local green jobs, it is also the only effective means to protect the public’s water supply and fisheries. A special exemption from the Clean Water Act for this industry would allow polluters to continue damaging our Nation’s waters and harming salmon and steelhead populations with little control or oversight. The failure to regulate storm water pollution from logging roads would also allow continued impacts to the drinking water supplies for millions of Americans throughout the country.

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