It’s hard to fathom the truly hideous condition our rivers were in before Congress approved the Clean Water Act 43 years ago.

Steve Brooke didn’t use the word that usually comes to mind, but when he talked about scraping raw sewage off the bottom of his canoe, we knew exactly what he meant. He was a Colby student then, and it was several years before the passage of the Clean Water Act.

Fish kills were common and their stench must have rivaled that of the sewage that floated in the Kennebec River and stuck to his canoe. In Yarmouth, where I live, the Royal River flowed with chicken guts and feathers. The Androscoggin River, the stench of which could make people retch, inspired Maine Sen. Ed Muskie to seek national protections for our waters through the Clean Water Act.

I’ve been in Washington, D.C., recently with Brooke and Chuck Verrill, two ardent anglers who are passionate about protecting Maine’s waters. We went to our elected officials to support new clean water rule and met with congressional staffers, trying to give them a sense why clean waters are important to us and to the state.

A registered Maine Guide, Brooke’s commitment to healthy rivers has been profound. For years, he led the Kennebec Coalition, which ultimately brought precedent-setting restoration to the Kennebec by removal of Edward’s Dam in Augusta.

Verrill seems happiest with a fly rod in hand, but his legal work was instrumental in restoring the alewife runs of the Sebasticook River, which have become the largest on the entire East Coast. Talking with the young staffers, we started back in the bad old days before the passage of the Clean Water Act. We could have quoted this report from 1937:

“One of the worst sources of pollution in the main river would be eliminated by the establishment of sewage treatment works at Waterville. … Commercial and sport fishing in the tidal portion of the Kennebec are now impossible … almost no desirable species of fish now occupy the river,” stated the report titled “Water Resources of New England” by the New England Regional Planning Commission.

This time around, after more than a year of consultation with stakeholders, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have announced a final rule clarifying which bodies of water are protected under the Clean Water Act.

The new rules will restore protections for wetlands and headwater streams that provide vital habitat for fish and wildlife and supply drinking water to 1 in 3 Americans, including 500,000 Mainers. Some 1,200 miles of streams and thousands of acres of wetlands in Maine would be protected by the rule. The risk of pollution not only threatens fisheries but also the thousands of jobs that rely on the hunting and fishing industry, which contributes $1.4 billion in revenue to our state each year.

Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King have a critical role to play in protecting our water. It is imperative that they support the new rule for the benefit of our state’s outdoor recreation industry and overall economy. Currently, 60 percent of the country’s stream miles are at greater risk for pollution because of Clean Water Act confusion, including 55 percent of stream miles in Maine.

The new clean water rule resolves nearly 15 years of confusion that has put our waters, wildlife and economy at risk. But some members of Congress are leading a politically charged, last-ditch effort to derail the methodical public rulemaking process. Derailing implementation of the rule puts Maine’s waters at risk. Not only would this unnecessarily delay a process that has been well vetted, it also would have serious, damaging impacts on our water supply and the outdoor recreation economy it supports.

Sportsmen and conservationists have been working for years to protect the waters we care about and depend on the most. Hunters and anglers were among the leading advocates in support of passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.

We traveled to Washington, D.C., to tell King and Collins why we need them to stand with Maine sportsmen — and all of our residents — and protect our water supply. If Congress considers a bill to delay the release of the final clean water rule, Maine’s senators will be a critical vote. We want them to remember the legacy of Maine’s rivers and look ahead, toward a future with clean water.

Landis Hudson is executive director of Maine Rivers, Yarmouth.

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