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COLUMN: Clean water critical for SD's outdoors

June wais "Great Outdoors Month" in South Dakota, thanks to a declaration by Gov. Dennis Daugaard. Throughout the month, state parks offered bird walks, outdoor cooking demonstrations, fishing derbies and other activities. And the great outdoors is big in South Dakota: Across the U.S., 38 percent of the population participates in wildlife-associated recreation. In South Dakota, the figure is 54 percent of our citizens.

Yet, in Congress this month, some U.S. Senators are attempting to block an effort by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers, that would protect the "great outdoors" wetlands of our Prairie Pothole region, as well as headwaters of many of nation's great trout streams and clean water drinking sources. We need to stop that misguided action.

Over the last few years, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued rulings that emphasized the need to clarify language that protects the safety of our drinking water supplies, wetlands and headwaters streams. Knowing they needed to clear things up and provide certainty for farmers, the EPA and Corps of Engineers last month posted the draft "Waters of the U.S." rule for public comment.

But now -- with a bit of political maneuvering -- some politicians are attempting to derail this clean water rule that would restore longstanding Clean Water Act protections to some of the nation's most important waters and wetlands.

When final, the rule will maintain exemptions for regular farming activities while reestablishing Clean Water Act protections for the wetlands and streams that provide drinking water for 1 in 3 Americans.

As a bonus for sportsmen and anglers, these same wetlands and streams provide critical habitat in our Prairie Pothole region for ducks, pheasants and fish, thereby helping to sustain the strong hunting and fishing economy of South Dakota. Statistics show that in South Dakota hunting has a yearly impact of $303 million, fishing has a yearly impact of $224, and wildlife viewing generates $183 million in trip expenditures and equipment costs.

Whether you enjoy clean water for drinking, or wildlife habitat for hunting and fishing I urge you to join me in supporting the proposed Waters of the U.S. rule. And I ask South Dakota U.S. Sens. John Thune and Tim Johnson to do so, as well. All policy-makers should.

It's easy to take South Dakota's great outdoors for granted, but we must heed cautionary tales from elsewhere in the country. Sadly, more than half of the nation's streams and rivers remain impaired by pollution and habitat loss. And our nation has been losing wetlands at an alarming rate. The most recent national assessment of wetland trends documented a 140 percent increase in the rate of wetland loss between 2004 and 2009. This was the first documented acceleration of wetland loss since the Clean Water Act was enacted more than 40 years ago.

These are repeated warnings to all of us of the fragility of our Prairie Pothole region, headwaters streams and drinking water supplies. And good reasons to safeguard them. The public comment period for this clean water rule extends through the end of July, allowing sufficient time for sportsmen, small business owners and others who care about keeping drinking water and wildlife habitat free from pollution to share their support.

The Great Outdoors are here in South Dakota, and we should all take a stand now to protect our important natural resources.

-- Rich Widman, of Brookings, is president of South Dakota Wildlife Federation. Chris Hesla, of Pierre, is executive director of the federation.