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The Clean Water Act, with Tom Kiernan of American Rivers

Description: This week, my guest is Tom Kiernan [38:50], President and CEO of American Rivers, an organization Orvis supports and endorses highly for the world-class work they do to protect our rivers. I wanted to explore the ins and outs of the Clean Water Act, one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century. I think it's important that anyone who enjoys time on the water understands just what it has done for us, and what it can do in the future.
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Podcast Transcript:

Tom R.: Hi, and welcome to the "Orvis Fly-Fishing" podcast. This is your host, Tom Rosenbauer and this week we're gonna talk about what I feel is probably one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed in this country. It's Clean Water Act. And if you like to fish, swim, canoe, kayak, paddleboard or if you just like to have clean water coming out of your tap when you take a drink of water, the Clean Water Act is important to you. So, I wanted to have an expert on this act on the podcast. And I don't understand all the intricacies of a lot of this legislation. So, I invited Tom Kiernan, President and CEO of American Rivers which is a great organization that Orvis supports. They've done some amazing work on protecting rivers throughout the United States. And Tom knows this, knows the background on this law. And so, I wanted to talk about, you know, how it started and how it's evolved over the years, how it's changed, what it looks like today, what it does for us and what it doesn't do for us and then what are some threats to the Clean Water Act because it's certainly done us a lot of good and will continue to do so in the future. So, I hope you enjoy this very educational podcast.
But before we talk about the Clean Water Act, let's talk some fishing. Let's do the Fly Box. The Fly Box is where you ask questions and I try to help you with an answer. If you have a question for the Fly Box, you can send it to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. I don't answer them all but I answer a lot of them. And you can either just type your question into the email or you can attach a voice file and if I feel it's of interest to other listeners, I'll read it on the air.
Anyway, let's start the Fly Box with an email from Brin from Alberta. Thank you for the passion and knowledge that you share so freely with our community. Your voice fills my vehicle to and from work each day and has accompanied me on many road trips to different fishing adventures. I appreciate the information and perspectives that you share and I've learned so much from listening to your thoughts and those of your guests each week. I always take something new from each episode to add to my fly box. I have a question about personal watercraft that I would love your insight on. I spend most of my time on moving water in smaller streams and rivers in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains here in Alberta and enjoy getting out wherever possible. The challenge is that many of these waters are a couple of hours drive so I don't get out nearly as often as I would like. There's several lakes and slow-moving rivers in close proximity less than an hour's drive to me that I would like to add to my time on the water with some evening and morning trips. Great idea, by the way, Brin.
I've been thinking about getting some kind of personal watercraft. For example, a pontoon or kayak. I've done some research into them online and thought I would ask for your opinions about the pros and cons of either option. Do you have a preference or recommendation about which mode of getting out on the water is better? I realize that like in most cases with fly-fishing it comes down in large part to personal preference but I would love to have your thought to add to my considerations. Again, thank you for all that you do for our sport and for making this sport accessible to people at varying points on their personal fly-fishing journeys.
Well, Brin, you know, I don't use personal watercraft on moving waters except drift boats. I have friends that have drift boats. And so, if I'm in a boat in moving water, it's gonna be a drift boat. So, I don't have any experience on things like pontoon boats and rafts and... well, smaller rafts, personal rafts. I do have experience on bigger rafts that are rowed but not the more smaller one or two person rafts. Anyway, but I do a fair amount of still water fishing, mostly for warm water species and I have two craft that I personally use. One is a canoe with pontoons so that two people can stand up in the canoe and cast and fish and lean over and net a fish without risking the canoe tipping over. And the other one is a kayak that I can stand up in and it's one of those fishing kayaks that's a lot more stable. And so that's kind of my view, is that you notice in both of those craft I could stand up. And I know that a lot of people fish from kayaks sitting down. But fly-fishing from any watercraft where you're sitting down, I find to be extremely difficult and extremely frustrating. You know, a lot of the people that fish from kayaks are using spin tackle and, you know, the way I like to fish is sight fishing. So, I need to be up higher. I can't be sitting down in a craft because I can't see the fish. I need to get a little elevation in whatever craft I'm in.
So, I am a big fan of anything that you can stand up in. And it's really, you know, dependent on how far are you going to pole or paddle and is it gonna be windy. You know, a kayak or a canoe are gonna be a lot better than something like a pontoon boat. And, you know, if it's big water, then you really want a bigger, more stable craft.
But my opinion is that you should buy the craft that appeals to you. Maybe ask around, ask some people in your area what they use or check know, go to a boat launch and see what people are putting in and ask them how they like the craft that they're using. But I really think that you wanna be able to stand up. And if know, fly-fishing most of the time is done in shallow water. And you might even consider a craft that you can pole. I pole both my kayak and my canoe. And poling as opposed to know, when you're standing up and in really shallow water and trying to move around without making a lot of noise, poling can be a really good way to do it. You don't need to have a flats boat to pole. You can pole canoes very well. In fact, it's a lot easier than poling a flats boat. And no, I don't have any advice on what kinda pole to get but it doesn't have to be very fancy. It can be a big, long stick as long as it's strong enough.
But anyway, that's just my opinion. I think if you're gonna fly-fish from a personal watercraft, you need something that you can stand up in.
Ed: Hi, Tom. This is Ed in Central Oregon. I'd like to start by also thanking you for this great podcast you put out. The Fly Box and your guests are just wonderful. I have two questions and a comment. First is with regard to a fly rod and knowing when a fish is too much for it. Last summer I bought a new four weight seven-foot six super fiberglass rod and I love it. It adds a lot of excitement to catching a fish. But it has me thinking when is a fish too big for it. Is a 24-inch redband at the Deschutes River too much for it? Maybe the fish tells me that by breaking off. Maybe I'm overthinking it. I know that skill and drag setting and all that will have an effect but I do try to play fish as quickly as possible to not overtire them and it just has me thinking on this.
Secondly, I'd like to ask if there's a way on the "Orvis Fly-Fishing" blog to sign up for a notification when there's a new posting. I don't see a way to do that and I don't always think to go to the website to check and see when there's a new posting. I do subscribe to other blogs that offer that feature and I think it would be great if Orvis did too. I get all the sales and new gear announcements and all that so I'm on the mailing list but I just don't see a way to do this.
And then lastly with regard to safety and the satellite communicators, I have a Garmin inReach GPS. And besides the SOS feature and the pre-canned messages that a caller had mentioned a couple of weeks ago, you can also send messages and receive from people on anything you wanna talk about. I can ask my wife if I left a fly box on my desk and she can respond whether I did or not so I don't spend an hour ripping my truck apart to see where I dropped it. I bought this in 2018 after an incident where a friend of mine and I were on a local river with no cell service and then two days later I was with him and he was in cardiac arrest in a cath lab and thank God we were in civilization when that happened. If it would've happened two days prior with no cell service, he would be dead and that prompted me to buy that communicator. So, any rate, that's just anecdotal evidence on their value. Thanks again for all you do.
Tom R.: So, Ed, you know, you can land almost any fish with almost any fly rod. It's just the amount of time that it's gonna take to tire that fish. And I wouldn't worry about big rainbow trout with a four-weight fiberglass rod. Fiberglass rods are very strong and you can really put the boots to a fish. So as long as you have a heavier tippet, you can really put a lot of pressure on a fish with a fiberglass rod. And, you know, if you're fishing really fast water and you get to the point where you just can't move the fish, then you know that you probably need a little bit heavier rod, one with a little more beef in the butt section, a five or a six-weight rod. But I wouldn't worry about putting a really big bend into that fiberglass rod. As long as it's a good quality one, you can put a lot of pressure on fiberglass rods. That's one place they really excel.
So, it's just a're probably not gonna break your rod and you're probably not gonna break your tippet with that four weight but it just may become a struggle and you may have to play a big fish for too long. So that's gonna be up to you to decide but you can land almost any size trout on that four-weight fiberglass if you're willing to put the time in.
I don't know about getting new...when there's new posting on the blog. I think you're talking about general blog posts on I'll make the suggestion but I don't have any pull in that area. But, you know, the blogs are meant, you know, for you to come back every other day or so and read the posts. So, I think that's the way you're gonna have to do it for the time being. And thank you very much for the recommendation on that Garmin device. I got a lot of email about recommendations for various personal safety locator beacons and devices and I'm sure that's a very good one.
Let's do another email. This one's from Tony in Oakland, Maryland. Back in the 1970s, Swisher and Richards contended fish key in on the size and color of the natural insect's body. So, for the tire, only the size and color of the abdomen is important. Have you tried simplifying patterns to see just how simple they can be and still entice fish? We spend a lot of time and resources on hackle, tails, ribs, tags, eyes, ears, nose, throat, etc. Are we wasting time? Well, Tony, I think that Swisher and Richards and a lot of other authorities were right in that probably the most important part of the dry flies...and I think you're mainly talking dry flies. I think the most important part of a dry fly is certainly the abdomen. That's the thing that shows up the most. Although you can read other authorities like Vince Marinaro who though that the wings, when they first come into a fish's window, were equally important. So, you know, I think that, yes, there are times when you could catch a fish on just a lump of fur on a hook that was about the right size and color. But, you know, we add things like hackle and tails. One, to help the fly float better and also hackle does a really good job of imitating the movement that a fly's making on the water cause they hardly ever sit still. They twitch and flutter and hackle does a good job imitating that.
Tails, probably not that important as far as imitation of something is concerned because a real mayfly has pretty insignificant tails but they do help float a fly or a shuck on the end that imitates the nymph shuck hanging on that. Yeah, ribs, probably not that important. Tags, eyes, ears, nose and throat and all that stuff, probably not that important. But, you know, to have a fly that floats and imitates a bug, you probably want at least some hackle or some wings and some tails as well as the body. And, you know, a lot of times we add a wing on a fly just to aid in visibility or hackle. Hackle or wings, you know. It helps the fly stick up above the water. If you just had a lump of fur in the surface film, unless you were pretty close to the fish, you'd have trouble spotting where your fly is. So, there are some pragmatic reasons for some parts of a fly and other parts, you know...a lot of the other doodads that we add to the imitation of an insect may be irrelevant but I think most of the time you're gonna need more than just an abdomen.
Let's do another email. This one is from Ken from Buffalo. My question is which do you prefer when fishing in inclement weather, that is rain, a wading jacket or a raincoat? What is the difference and the pros and cons of each? Currently, I use a vest but I am considering purchasing a sling pack. Would you take this into consideration when picking which would work? Looking forward to hearing your opinion since I will be purchasing one of the two in the near future. Thank you. Well, Ken, you know, the difference between a raincoat and a wading jacket is basically length. And if you do a lot of deep wading where you don't want your jacket hanging in the water, then a shorter wading jacket is probably a good idea. On the other hand, if you fish more from the bank or you fish more from the boat, then maybe a longer raincoat might be a better idea. And I don't know, as far as a vest is concerned, I don't really think it matters. You know, people will put their raincoats over their vests or they'll put their vests over their raincoat and there's advantages and disadvantages to each. If you put your vest underneath your raincoat, you're gonna keep your vest and all your flies dry in a driving rain. However, it's gonna be tough to get in there and get to your pockets.
If you put the vest on the outside of the raincoat, things are gonna be more easily accessible but stuff's gonna get wet. So, you know, a lot of people, when it's raining will just wear a rain jacket and put a couple of tools and fly floatant and a fly box or two in a pocket of their wading or their rain jacket and not wear the entire vest. When you're wearing a sling pack, it's gonna be outside of the raincoat for sure. You're not gonna be able to put your raincoat over the top of a sling pack. One of the things that I would consider if I were you is something that I've been using. There is a new waterproof sling pack that just came out on the Orvis website and it is truly waterproof, submersible and waterproof with a really good waterproof zipper on it. And I love that not only because I fish in the rain a lot but also because I wade deep. So, you might consider that.
And then whatever type of raincoat or wading jacket works for you. You're gonna have to decide how much deep wading you do versus how much boat fishing and bank fishing you do or shallow wading. You know, if you're just going ankle deep, then doesn't matter. You can wear a wading jacket or a raincoat. Either one of them, good one. Either one of them's gonna keep you dry. Hope that helps.
John: Hi, Tom. This is John from West Virginia. I wanted to share a tip that I use with my granddaughters when I'm teaching them how to tie flies. Instead of using a hook, I have been modifying a paperclip with some wire cutters and then sanding the edge a little bit so that they're not sharp. And then I put this modified paperclip in my vice and we proceed. Needless to say, we have a lot of pink and purple in our fly collection right now but they're getting the idea. Hey, and it's fun to watch them try this new technique.
Lastly, I'd like to say thank you for all you do. You've made me a better fisherman. You've also made me a better guide. I love listening to the Fly Box and getting some good advice from you and from others. Take care and it was good to see you in Virginia at the Fly-Fishing Festival in January.
Tom R.: John, that's a great idea for teaching kids to tie. You know, I know, often with really young kids, you don't want a sharp hook in the vice because they're not that careful and they're gonna poke themselves. And what I've often done is cut the point off a hook and put that in a vice. But that's expensive. And the idea for teaching kids to tie and putting a paperclip in the vice is a terrific idea. So, thanks very much for that great piece of advice on teaching kids to tie and it was great seeing you in Virginia.
Here is another email from Gabe. I have some fly-tying questions in regards to weighted flies. I live in an area where I can fish pretty much any fly I want but, on occasion, I fish the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, Canada which requires unweighted flies in fly-fishing only waters and no weight added to the line. No split shot. Beaded flies leave room for interpretation over there so I avoid them. Are the beads there for weight or are they just part of the dressing? I still like to use nymphs but I'm not allowed to add lead wire or anything else to add weight. What do you suggest I use for hooks? Perhaps tie a fly size 14 pheasant tail nymph on a size 12 hook? Any other suggestions in regards to my line or leader, sink tip, etc.?
Thank you for all you do for our sport. I've been listening to your podcast while tying for a while now. I may not be that much of a better fisherman but damn, I'm quite the podcast listener.
Well, thank you Gabe. And, you know, that's a really good question about beads. You know, I fish one river where weight is not allowed as well. And there is the thought that beads are part of the dressing and then there is the thought that beads are added weight to the fly. And it's really up to the interpretation of any given warden on a stream unless the law clarifies that more. You know, if you get caught and they accuse you of fishing a weighted fly, it's really up to the interpretation of the conservation officer. So, you know, best to just not use bead heads if you can't use weighted flies. So yeah, there are things you can do. And, you know, in Atlantic salmon fishing there are what are called low water flies which are a fly tied on about, you know, two thirds of a hook and they're shorter but they're on a bigger hook. And you can do that for sure. You know, that's one way of getting around it. And also pay attention to the dressing o your nymphs. If you wanna sink them, you know, the mantra of the euronymphers is thin for the win and refers not only to your tippet but also to the fly. And, you know, a thinner a fly, the less resistance it provides to the water, the better it's gonna sink. So, things like perdigons, may have to leave the bead off a perdigon or put a glass bead on it, are gonna sink better than something like a hare's ear that's really wide and fuzzy.
Now if you're swinging flies, there's an easy solution if it's legal and that's to use a polyleader or a sink tip line and then you're gonna...with a short leader. Then you're gonna be able to get the fly down. But whether you can use the sinking line, I don't know, legally. But if you can, that's a better way and it sounds like you're fishing for Atlantic salmon. Then you can certainly swing a nymph with a sink tip or a polyleader on the end. So those are just some suggestions but I would start out first tying, you know, tying a smaller fly on a bigger hook, the biggest, heaviest hook you can find. Something know, there's some hooks that are called heavy wet fly hooks but you want know, you want something that's, like...sometimes they're labeled something like 1X stout or 2X stout when you look at listings of hooks in a catalog or on a website. So, I would go with the heaviest hook you could find, sparse dressing and thin for the win. So good luck, Gabe.
Here's an email from West from Roanoke, Virginia. I fish for smallmouth stocked and wild trout and striper here in Southwest Virginia. I've just gotten into fly-fishing in the last year and it's the only way I'll fish from here on out. I love it. I'm wondering about the difference between a nail knot and a loop to loop when attaching line and leader. What's the difference between the knots and is there a time when one is better than the other? What knot do you normally use to attach your leader to your fly line? Thanks for everything you do.
So West, I'm a big fan of the permanent loops that come on quality fly lines. There's a permanent loop on the end of the fly line. And I just use a loop-to-loop connection. Not really a knot. I use a loop-to-loop connection which you can find in the Orvis Learning Center if you don't know how to do it. It's quite simple. And I just loop my leaders onto my fly line that way and I use it on everything from trout to tarpon. But there are some people who don't like the loop-to-loop connection. They feel that it hangs up in their guides and it's, you know, it's a little's just a little bit more wind resistant and some people don't like that. So, they will nail knot their leader directly to the fly line. Both knots are gonna work. It's really...again, it's really personal preference. I use a loop-to-loop connection so...but a lot of people use a nail knot. So, I would try them both. And then, you know, sometimes...eventually, if you fish a fly line long enough, that permanent loop is going to...the coating on it is going to crack and then you're gonna have to either replace the fly line or nail knot your leader to the line. So maybe you should start out with a loop-to-loop connection with permanent loop on the fly line, use it for a while. If you don't like it, cut it off and put a nail knot on.
Here's an email from Kade from snowy Washington, home of the Yakima River. I love the podcast and all that you and Orvis do for our community. I have a question on fly tying. Do you have any tips on tying bigger foam patterns? I sometimes have a hard time keeping the foam from spinning on the hook. Also, what do you think would be a good carp and trout rod? I have access to the Salt River in Arizona when I am on vacation. My main targets are largemouth and stocked rainbows but the occasional 10-pound carp on a 4 weight is one heck of a fight. I would love to hear this in a podcast. Keep up the great work you and Orvis do for us.
So Kade, yeah. Big foam flies, when they twist, it's a pain in the butt. And there is a relatively easy solution. You know, sometimes when the foam slips, it's not actually where you tie the foam in. It's actually the thread underneath the foam that slips on the hook shank. So, here's a way that's going to keep your foam from spinning on the hook, guaranteed. So, when you start your thread, cover the shank of your hook with thread and then add a little superglue to the thread. Then go back and dub a body. Even if you don't...even if the fly doesn't require a dubbed body, the foam fly, just dub a body that matches the overall color scheme of the fly with, you know, some kind of dubbing. Doesn't really matter what kinda dubbing you use. And then when you tie your foam in, I always put a drop of superglue right on the point where I'm gonna attach the foam and I let it soak right into the dubbing and then I lay my foam down on top of it and sinch down with the thread. Now make sure that you're using fairly heavy thread, you know, 3-0 or 140 denure. Make sure you're using a fairly strong thread so that you can really lash that foam to the hook. Probably not a good idea to use gel spun thread which is really strong but sometimes that cuts through the foam. So just standard 3-0 or 140 denure thread will do it.
And, you know, press down on top of the foam. Three good, firm turns of tying thread is know, between that and the superglue and the dubbing underneath, that sucker is never gonna spin on your hook. So, give that a try.
You know, as far as a good carp or trout rod, I think a six-weight rod is gonna be just about right, a nine-foot six weight. It's not too heavy for trout. And you can handle a 10-pound carp on a 6 weight pretty easily. So, I think a six weight would be just about right for what you're talking about.
Here's an email from Jill in North Carolina. Hi, Tom. Really enjoyed your episode with Jesse on landing fish in the net. I've been fly-fishing for several years and am fairly coordinated person but I find that dealing with the rod and landing a fish is awkward and problematic. Where do I put it? On land it's sometimes an option but not always. I have a rod clip that I'm underwhelmed with so I rarely use it. My bag is a front chest pack is that is useful to your answer.
Yeah, Jill, it's always a problem. I don't think there's a really good solution. I've tried one of those rod clips and I didn't like it either. I don't even know where it is. I bought one and I used it a couple of times. I think I broke the tip of a rod using one so I stopped using it. So, I understand that you're underwhelmed with that. Honestly, I just tuck the rod under my arm and yeah, sometimes it gets in the way but, you know, the best thing to do is to try to get into shallow water that's not running too fast. Just throw your rod in the water. You know, as long as the current's not so fast that it's going to carry your rod away, you know...if you find it uncomfortable to hold it under your arm...and I just put my rod down in the water or sometimes maybe between my legs but often you can just lay it down. Lay it down in shallow water and it's not gonna hurt your rod or your reel or your fly line or anything at all to do that as long as you're not throwing it in the mud.
So, you know, in general, try to get close enough to shore when you're landing a fish so that you can just either put the rod under your arm or just lay it in the water.
Here's an email from Bill from Williamsport, Maryland. I read your knot and tippet book and you show how to tie a Bimini twist. However, it's still a mystery to me how you would use a completed knot. Do you use it as a loop knot or do you use it doubled over? For what applications do you use it? Thanks.
Well, Bill, the Bimini twist, I had been told, is the only knot that is truly 100% because of the way it's constructed. And what it does is it doubles over your line and adds a knot but a knot that is not going to take any strength out of the system. So, let's say you wanna tie a 40-pound shock tippet to 20-pound tippet material. And if you just tied a surgeon's knot or a blood knot, that's not gonna hold very well. But if you have two strands of tippet, that's gonna provide enough bulk that those knots are gonna hold better.
So, I'll tell you an example. Mostly Bimini twist is used in salt water where you're constructing a leader with a class tippet and a shock tippet and you're attaching things of greatly varying diameters and you wanna put a loop or a knot in there that isn't gonna break. Often people will take that doubled section and then tie a loop in that. So, when you tie a loop in that, you actually have four strands to attach with a loop-to-loop connection. The Bimini twist also has a considerable amount of stretch in it. So, it gives you some shock absorption. If you tie a Bimini twist and you pull on it, you'll see that it has quite a bit of stretch. So, it does give you shock absorption. But I'll tell you how I use it in trout fishing. When I use a sink tip line, I just use a short piece of tippet material, usually 2X, 3X, 1X or OX, something fairly heavy. And I have found that when I just tie a perfection loop in my tippet and loop it to the end of sinking line or the loop on a polyleader, the perfection loop often breaks. I don't think it's a really good knot in smaller diameters. It's great in the butt section of a leader but I don't think it's really good.
So, what I do is I tie a Bimini twist in one end of the tippet and then I make...with that doubled over section, I make a perfection loop or a surgeon's loop and then I loop that to my fly line or my polyleader. And that gives me a little bit of stretch and a lot of extra strength and I found that that works quite well. The other thing that I'll do on a sinking line is to use a little bit heavier piece than I'm gonna use for my tippet, just a short, like, six-inch piece. Put a Bimini twist in it, put a loop in that doubled over section, loop it to the sinking line. And then I'll put a tippet ring or a little micro swivel on the end of that short six-inch piece and then I can tie any tippet I want to that tippet ring. And, you know, that Bimini twist is almost a permanent connection to the sinking line. Sounds complicated but if you actually sit down and do it, it's not that hard. The hard part is tying a Bimini twist. It's not an easy knot to tie and takes quite a bit of practice and muscle memory. But anyway, that's what it's used for. It's really used to double over a section of the tippet.
Don: Hey, Tom. This is Don from North Carolina. You said you wanted a few more voice messages so here's one for you. Thanks for all you and your peers at Orvis do to support the sport. We really appreciate that. I'm out in the Blue Ridge in North Carolina today exploring for bluelines and without my fishing gear because I can move a lot more easily without all that. And you may even hear the water in the background. My question is the area I'm at right now, I drove probably about six miles on a bumpy forest service road and had a walk about a mile and a half on a trail. It's marked trail. There's no one here. I haven't seen anybody. But in the warmer months, there will be a few people here and on a particularly nice days, there will be college kids that find this area. And they'll wanna get down into the water. You know, they're gonna wanna get in these pools here. There's gorgeous pools on this blueline. And they'll make some noise which is all fine. So, if I'm fishing while they're doing that, how far away do you think I need to be for the fish not to be spooked from them?
And then the rest of that question would be do I wanna be downstream of them, do I wanna be upstream of them? Just how do you handle that when you encounter those situations? Thanks again and I look forward to your answer.
Tom R.: So, Don, you know, typically, you don't have to worry much about people swimming in a pool. You're obviously not gonna fish that pool and you really don't want to if there's somebody swimming in it. But, you know, 100 or even 50 feet away the fish probably are not gonna be spooked unless the people have been walking up and down the creek. So, you know, if you stop and you see people swimming in a pool, I'd ask them, "Hey, have you just been swimming here or have you been walking up and down the creek?" And if they've just been swimming in there, then you're gonna be fine. Those fish can't hear or see stuff from that far away in those tiny, tumbling mountain streams. And I'd rather see people swimming in a pool than an angler in a pool because if there's an angler in the pool, he's probably worked upstream half a mile or a mile or so and is probably waded through all that water whereas somebody that's just swimming in a pool, they're not gonna bother you much.
And, you know, you can get pretty close to them but you're're blue lining. You're probably not gonna wanna get that close to them. So, you know, I wouldn't even pay any attention to it. You're gonna get away from those people because you're out there to...for the solitude of trout fishing in a mountain stream and you get out of sight, the fish aren't gonna be spooked. As long as those people haven't been walking up and down the stream.
All right. That's the Fly Box for this week. Let's go talk to Tom Kiernan about the Clean Water Act.
So, my guest today is Tom Kiernan. Tom is the President and CEO of American Rivers which is an organization that Orvis supports and endorses. We've worked with American Rivers for a long time. They do some of the greatest work in conservation of our fresh waters. And Tom, welcome. Welcome to the podcast.
Tom K.: Wow. Tom, thank you very much for inviting me. Great to be with you and appreciate the partnership and support with Orvis. And I enjoy products, enjoy out there fly-fishing and great to be working together.
Tom R.: Yeah, it really is. It really is and we always have a... when we have a project with American Rivers, it always goes very smoothly and I appreciate that. But I thought we would talk today about something that affects really all rivers. The Clean Water Act which I guess I understand and a lot of people understand as a concept but don't realize how it's evolved over the years and how it's been changed and then I know there were some threats to it during previous administration. And so, let's kinda talk about the Clean Water Act, what it's done and maybe what it hasn't done and then how it's evolved since 1972.
Tom K.: Yeah, happy to do it because it is one of our bedrock environmental laws, extraordinarily important. Agree with you and we can talk about it. It has changed over the many years. And actually, the first, if you will, version of it was passed in 1948. So well before the...
Tom R.: Oh, my God. Wow.
Tom K.: Yeah. If you will, before the "modern environmental movement" a lot of people turned to kinda 1970 give or take as a time when a number of key laws were passed. But in any case, 1948 was a first early version. It didn't work terribly well and it was called the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. But in any case, we still had growing problems mostly at that point with industrial pollution. So, in the '40s, '50s, '60s, a lot of plants, mills kept turning out significant wastewater, dumping it frankly straight into rivers. And then it was in 1972 the more modern version of the Clean Water Act was passed and that was catalyzed by, as I said, all that pollution. And folks may remember the Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969. And that was, I think, a wakeup moment for the country. Something is woefully wrong if that's what's happening. But that was a symbolic moment that we are clearly using our rivers, abusing our rivers and we need to clean them up both for our own health and the health of the environment.
So, it was in '72 the Clean Water Act was passed. And since then, it has gone through many permutations that we can talk about. But in many ways that first bill did have a profound positive benefit. We started...after 1972, did start seeing significant cleanup mostly of industrial sources. So, a lot of early progress caused by the 1972 bill.
Tom R.: Okay. And how was it enforced? You know, how were these sources of pollution identified and sourced? Who were the people...because there was no EPA at that point, right?
Tom K.: It was just...the EPA was just getting formed around then in the early 1970s. But the partnership...and I do frankly think it's a healthy, good partnership between the federal government, EPA and the state governments that has built over the years. So, enforcement often happens at the state level and I think that's a good thing. What tends to happen with many of the laws, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, that the federal government sets the standards. It does a lot of the science as to, "Hey, what should the standards be for air quality, water quality, what have you?" And then delegates to the state implementation and enforcement once of course the state has proven it has the capability of enforcing the laws. But that partnership again where the federal government sets the standard and the state implement and enforces works pretty well. I will also add the federal government has played a really important role at providing a lot of funding over the years up to and including 2022 with the infrastructure, the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last February.
The federal government provides a lot of funding to help states clean up their water sources and there are a number of different vehicles, one of which is the state revolving fund. But the point is federal government provides funds that the states can borrow from at a very low interest rate. So, it helps. And there are also grant programs, a lot of grant programs, but that helps small communities, towns, cities make the investments that they need whether in enforcement or in their own wastewater treatment facilities or upgrading what they have to reduce pollution. So, in general, the partnership of the federal and state and then local governments works relatively well and we've seen a lot of successes as I mentioned earlier since the '70s. A lot of those industrial points of pollution have gotten cleaned up. Cities have done a better job creating wastewater treatment facilities that work and that work well. We have our issues and we'll talk about them but, you know, at a fundamental level in the 1970s, '80s, '90s, we saw significant improvements in the water quality of our rivers. They no longer caught on fire. That's a low bar.
Tom R.: People fly-fish in the Cuyahoga River now.
Tom K.: Exactly. And the Cuyahoga is an important recreational resource whether it's fly-fishing, swimming, boating, walking along. I believe there's a unit as the national park system in that area. So exactly. When we we all know as anglers, when we take care of these resources, you know, they're our source of drinking water but they're also recreationally important and important for our mental health.
Tom R.: Yeah.
Tom K.: Yeah, so it's exciting now. Along the Cuyahoga River you're able to enjoy...whether it's fishing and walking around the river and I believe there's even a unit of the national park system there. So, the point is we have gone since the '70s, '80s and '90s and we have significantly cleaned up our water sources because of the Clean Water Act. Now there are some threats to it and some significant improvements that we can talk about that we need to make. But it was a great start. And the challenges to our rivers have evolved but the Clean Water Act was a really important beginning and maybe we can get to the current state but again, a lot of success early on.
Tom R.: Okay. Let's talk about threats to it and the current state of the Clean Water Act, how it's evolved.
Tom K.: Yeah. So, a couple of different thoughts. First, I would use know, we're seeing a lot of floods and droughts throughout the country catalyzed or exacerbated by climate change. You know, whether it's out in California where we've had a, you know, mega drought for many years and now huge storms [inaudible 00:46:50] rivers and, you know, just dumping large amounts of water. And the reason I raise that is we are seeing throughout the country increased...what's called nonpoint source pollution. So, you can think of a point source, a pipe from an industrial facility or whatever out into a river but now we're increasingly seeing a lot of runoff, just general runoff if you will from an agricultural field or a roadway near a city or a field near a city. So, it's not a point or a pipe. It's kind of general runoff again from an agricultural field. And the nonpoint source population is a growing both percentage and absolute amount of pollution into our rivers. And the Clean Water Act that was so successful in the early 1970s, '80s, '90s, etc. does not have a really effective strategy for regulating, for setting standards and enforcing standards for this nonpoint source pollution.
So those are examples of places where the Clean Water Act needs to be improved. There's also...people likely have read about the case Sackett versus EPA. It's a lawsuit that has worked its way up to the Supreme Court of the United States and the fundamental kinda question...and this has gone back and forth somewhat like a pendulum but what bodies of water are covered within the Clean Water Act. So, this case is a case that's trying to narrow to limit the number of wetlands or waterways, creeks, streams that are covered by the Clean Water Act. And frankly it's something that we're deeply concerned about this lawsuit because the last...when you spend times on rivers, you come to understand that, you know, that headwater, that small creek way upstream or that wetland that is near a river or kinda next to a river but maybe not connected to the river...we know over time that, you know, those wetlands or that small creek is connected maybe through underground, through the aquifer or the ground water. And that is so important to keep protected in the Clean Water Act.
We've learned over time and all the science is showing that interconnectedness of nature and that, you know, if you impact a water body and maybe it's 20 yards away from a river...if you dig up that wetland or fill it in or what have you, it is gonna impact that river, that creek that's nearby. So, in addition, I mentioned earlier, the nonpoint source pollution, we've gotta make sure the laws that we currently have on the books are not weakened. So that's a whole other dimension of a threat but we've gotta make sure good laws are passed, that they're enforced and implemented and that they're upheld by the courts. So that's another one of our current challenges, is with the Supreme Court, making sure they appropriately understand all the connections among our water bodies and the need to protect all of the creeks and streams and wetlands and whirlpools.
Tom R.: So, I've just got a couple of questions, if you don't mind. Did the original Clean Water Act cover and protect these wetlands and small creeks?
Tom K.: We believe it did, that there is an early language in that legislation that talks about waters of the U.S. And so yes, we believe it does. And obviously there are others that have different interpretations but we think from the get-go the laws contemplate the connection and the need to protect all of these different water bodies.
Tom R.: And where does that case stand right now? Is it going to be heard by the Supreme Court or are they considering it? I don't quite understand all those intricacies.
Tom K.: Exactly. So, it has been heard before the Supreme Court. There were initial arguments. And obviously there are many experts that try to interpret the questions of the different Justices as to what that might imply as to where they're leaning.
Tom R.: Right.
Tom K.: So, it has been heard by the Supreme Court. They have not yet made a final ruling. So, we're waiting to hear from them.
Tom R.: Okay.
Tom K.: There is a general sense that given the questions they were asking, they may try to, if you will, split the difference or come up with a ruling that doesn't go so far as to cut off all of these bodies of water but to limit some of them. At the same time, I should point out, the Biden administration has moved forward with a rulemaking of their own that we think is a strong, good rulemaking and interpretation and next stop on the Clean Water Act that we think moves in the right direction. That will likely or may also be litigated. So, you've got a whole series of lawsuits. And that unfortunately is kinda...often happens in environmental movement where, you know, there's a whole series of lawsuits after all these different regulations. So Supreme Court should be making a decision sometime...or probably I'm sure it will make a decision in 2023, release that decision. The administration is also moving forward and we'll see how all of that unfolds. But the key takeaway is that the...our waters in the United States are in jeopardy. We are seeing increased floods, increased droughts, we're seeing increased nonpoint source pollution in our rivers. So, while we had some early progress in the '70s, '80s and '90s, we're seeing now some deterioration in the water quality throughout the country and we've gotta be active as citizens in...
You know, whether it's on the political front and, you know, people getting involved in politics or advocacy or talking to their state legislature but people need to...especially anglers need to speak up because the future of our rivers and our water is in question. And have these healthy rivers, we need to make sure our voices are heard.
Tom R.: Yeah. So, when you talk about those threats, the flood and drought issue is kind of an existential issue and it's worldwide, right, and there's...that's a big issue that we...I don't think we wanna get into here. But the nonpoint source pollution, what kind of regulations or what kind of monitoring do you think we'd need in the future to try to mitigate these sources of pollution? What can we do?
Tom K.: One of the means of working with the farming and ranching community is through the Farm Bill. And in 2023, Congress will be working to pass the next Farm Bill and that bill has all kinds of incentives and encouragement and funding available to farmers and ranchers. And one of the best ways of working with agriculture community is by encouraging them, rewarding, incentivizing farmers and ranchers to do good things. So, for example, we are working to increase the funding for conservation easement, especially along floodplains. So, if you've got, say, a farmer and they've got a field right next to the river, maybe the best thing to do is to reimburse that farmer, have a conservation easement on that land so that they don't farm it, get them...they get paid for that easement. So, they get funding but they don't farm it which means they don't have additional pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer they're putting on that piece of land that will likely flow straight into the river. So, they upcoming Farm Bill is a place to incentivize as well as there are other kind of laws and regs that impact the farming community.
So, I do think you can work...and we are working in partnership with the farm community to reduce their runoff. I'll also say related. Especially out in the southwest with the Colorado River, 80% of the Colorado River goes to agriculture. And there are many crops and irrigation techniques that are pretty inefficient. So, for example, you've got...whether it's alfalfa or almonds that are...require huge amounts of water that in fact are probably not the right crop to be growing in a very arid environment. So, we're working with the farm community to help think through transitions, adjustments in how they're irrigating and what crops they're irrigating to reduce agricultural use of really important and increasingly scarce river water.
So, the goal there is to reduce the draw of agriculture because in the southwest and in California where we're just flat out running out of water whether it's in rivers or in the aquifers. So, we need to get smarter and partner with the agriculture community to help them transition to low need plant and more efficient irrigation techniques.
Tom R.: What are some of the things that American Rivers is specifically working on with those issues?
Tom K.: Yep. So, I mean, we've got...American Rivers has regional offices throughout the country and I was just recently with our regional staff in Colorado and up visiting one of our partners in Colorado at the Kremmling, Colorado and there are a number of different projects. I mean, they're looking at changing their crop rotation strategy. They're looking at fallowing some of their fields for periods of time throughout the year so that they're able to use less water but still get the, frankly, the financial revenue that that family needs from the farm. And so, we've got projects with farmers experimenting with new techniques. We're also working with them, doing some river restoration and creating...improving the habitat for, in this case, trout but obviously different species, different rivers but to improve the trout habitat in a river flowing right by their property.
And I mean, some of these communities...obviously fishing can be an important both recreation but also economic engine for a community.
Tom R.: Yeah, yeah.
Tom K.: So, doing river restoration, you know, can be both good for the citizens, good for the fish and good for the economy. So, working with farmers to improve their water taxes and the health of their river, you know, whether it's changing some of the banks, making sure you've got some slower water, some eddies, you know, some slower current for trout and other fish. So, we're on the ground in communities and frankly coming up with some exciting results that we think can be scaled throughout the southwest.
Tom R.: Oh, that's great. That's great. When you get some examples you can show to other people, then those kind of things can catch on, especially when they see the benefit.
Tom K.: Yeah. And I will also say we are in a period of time...because somewhat of COVID and also the last couple of years, there is a fair amount of federal funding available. There's the infrastructure bill, the bipartisan infrastructure bill that was passed last February and those funds are now flowing to states and it does include river restoration funding. It does include river conservation. I think it was $500,000. I may have that number slightly off but for restoration work in the Colorado Basin. So, the point is funding is flowing from the federal government out to states to work on clean water projects, to work on river restoration. So, there's a... we've got the next several years to prove out some of these...the benefits of these nature-based solutions of reconnecting floodplains to rivers and benefit both for habitat and clean water from that.
So, we're at a, I think, not a tipping point but a point where we can move the needle, improve habitat and show, demonstrate, as you were saying, to communities and Americans that the natural world is so important. The river environment, our protected lands, that it's worth investing and caring and where we can restore our rivers and waterways and it's for the benefit, yes, of habitat and fish but very much to us, to drinking water, to communities, to agriculture. So, I'm actually hopeful that we can make a lot of progress in the next coming years.
Tom R.: Spend that money while you've got it.
Tom K.: Exactly.
Tom R.: You're gonna be busy.
Tom K.: And, you know, I'll also say that if we prove it correct, if in the next four, five, six years we're able to effectively spend money, do some restoration projects and come back both to communities and states and the federal government to be able to say, "Hey, look at what we were able to do with that funding. We improved drinking water for this community whether it's Jackson, Mississippi that's had such drinking issues or we restored this river and trout came back and/or we removed these dams and the river was reconnected and here are the economic and ecological benefits." If we can have a bunch of good case studies and prove the return on that investment, we can make the case back to Congress to say, "Boy, investing in our natural infrastructure is a wise investment." And, you know, studies show that that's the case but we need to prove it out on the ground and I think we can then, five years from now, come back for additional funding.
Tom R.: Yeah, and even at the local level, you know. I live in a farming community and boy, all those farmers know what the guy just down the road is doing in his farm and if the places where you're doing the studies show a benefit to the farmer, they're all gonna get the message.
Tom K.: Yeah.
Tom R.: You know, it can work both at the, you know, the federal level, the governmental level but it can also work at the local level if you have a great example to show people.
Tom K.: Fully agree. I don't wanna put it this way but studies have shown that is often the best way of educating folks or bringing them along is by having their next-door neighbor show them. And, you know, it's not some "expert" coming in from out of town. They're having their next-door neighbor say, "Hey, here's what I did and, you know, it improved my bottom line and it also improved our soil health or what have you." But totally agree. If we can have good projects on the ground, that's the way to show the benefit over the time, over long term.
Tom R.: Well, that's great work that you're doing. That's great work. And by the way, congratulations. American Rivers is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Tom K.: Thank you. Yeah. Per the math obviously, we were founded in 1973 and just turning 50 and we're excited to accelerate our work. We work throughout the country in communities through kind of our regional offices where, you know, in some places, you know, we're removing a lot of dams that have been preventing the migration of fish up and down a river and other places. We're reconnecting floodplains. In other communities we're working with folks to protect their wild and healthy rivers. We'll go out in scenic designations and in other communities we're working now with some towns. We've got a team up in Grand Rapids, Michigan working to help them install more natural infrastructure for their stormwater runoff. So, if they have a big rainstorm, their water doesn't run, say, over the streets and roads and end in the rivers but gets held up in holding ponds, in settling ponds, in some of their wetlands so that natural infrastructure allows the water, one, to be filtered but also then the water can spread out and slowly get down into the groundwater and be stored in the groundwater.
So American Rivers does a lot of these different types of projects but it's all about improving our rivers for the benefit of people so we have better drinking water and also places to recreate and also obviously, yes, for the benefit of fish and habitat.
Tom R.: Now who were some of the original founders of American Rivers?
Tom K.: So, we were founded by four, I think it's fair to say, conservationists, environmentalists, four individuals back in early '70s who realized rivers were getting caught on fire. We had the Wild and Scenic Act that was an act passed by Congress then. And they were saying, "Hey, we need to get an organization formed to protect more wild and scenic rivers." And we were realizing at that point that the dams...we have well over 200,000 dams throughout the country that...while some of them are useful and definitely produce hydro power and some of them are needed for irrigation or what have you, a lot of our dams are abandoned or unsafe or no longer serve a useful purpose. So, our founders started with that vision of protecting wild rivers and restoring other rivers that have dams in them. The quickest way of restoring health to a river often is removing a dam because the dam obviously disconnects the river, prevents the migration of species and organic matter up as well as down the river.
So yeah, for 50 years we've been removing now thousands of dams and it's spectacular. You know, a river environment, as your listeners know, it's a dynamic system. And we see, you know, within a year a river coming back to life, fish moving back up, especially anadromous fish, salmon or steelhead coming back up a river when they have the ability to, when there's not a dam there. So, this work that we do, I find extraordinarily hopeful, restorative. We are strengthening and improving habitat health, river health throughout the country whether by protecting healthy places or by restoring, rejuvenating damaged rivers by removing the dams or reconnecting floodplains. Good work. And we would encourage, sorry, your members to join. Come to and partner with us and partner with all of our partner organizations. It's a great community in the river and water communities throughout the country.
Tom R.: I would second that motion because people frequently ask me on the podcast, they write to me and say...particularly, you know, in late December I'm getting my charitable contributions in line. What do you recommend? What organizations do you recommend I support? And American Rivers is definitely one that I recommend.
Tom K.: Well, thank you on that front, Tom. One other quick point if I may.
Tom R.: Sure.
Tom K.: I often encourage folks to join a really local group. You know, if there is a river in your backyard or a stream or a... really local group, boy, join them and get involved and understand the local level. And then join a regional group and a national group. But my point is as somebody who cares about the outer doors, I find it's most rewarding. Get involved at multiple levels. Get involved, you know, with American Rivers. We're throughout the country. And get involved in a state group and maybe, you know, your local watershed group or something that you can then see that interconnectedness of some of the policies and the advocacy. So just a thought for your listeners. Think about supporting, getting involved at the local, regional and national levels.
Tom R.: I think that's a great idea because you start at the local level and you really kinda learn the ins and out and, you know, it's gonna resonate with you because it's in your backyard. And then you can take that knowledge and expand it into the state and the national level. So that's a great idea, to join organizations or at least keep tabs. If you don't join, at least keep tabs on organizations and volunteer on your local...definitely volunteer on your local watershed association.
Tom K.: Then you can see the benefit. Then if you're plugged in with a national group as well and you hear more about the national policies but then you can see're get aware of those and you can see them, if you will, trickle down to the state and local level. You can see the impacts. And in reality, that's the way our United States works is federal, state and local and there is an interconnectedness and there's people that care about the environment or the outer doors. You know, you wanna be smart at these different levels and see the impact of one level of government on the other.
Tom R.: Yeah. And they're complicated issues and you need to kinda need to start small and build up your knowledge because it's, you know...when you get into Supreme Court cases and funding and farm bills, it's really mindboggling.
Tom K.: Concur. Yeah.
Tom R.: You mentioned the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act which I believe was passed in 1964, so prior to the Clean Water Act. Tell people exactly what becoming a wild and scenic river does for a river and what it doesn't do.
Tom K.: Yeah. So, the Wild and Scenic Act is a wonderful piece of legislation because what it does...first, it goes through an agency in the federal government or a nonprofit group, works to identify a stretch of river and what the outstanding resource values are of that river. So, you kinda do an inventory of identifying, "Oh, man, this river's got spectacular species or habitat or scenic vistas or recreational importance or whatever." But you first articulate what are the outstanding resource values of a certain stretch of river and then that gets further analyzed by the federal government and then ultimately gets passed by Congress if it's under the National Wild and Scenic Act. There are also many states that have their own state version of it which is great. But at the end of the day, what it does is two things. First it limits what federal activities can happen on or near that river. So normally there's a corridor that's protected. Either a quarter mile, half mile either side of the river where federal government, you know, say, Department of Transportation building a highway or what have you. It limits the ability to do anything that would harm those resource values. But in addition to...
So, and it doesn't limit, say, what an individual might do on their property. So, it's not the black helicopter thing where people are preventing private landowners from using their property. It just limits what the federal government can and can't do. But it then also...we're seeing this throughout the country. Often wild and scenic designations become really important places that drive tourism, that drive recreation whether it's white water, whether it's fishing, whether it's just people coming and walking and hiking along the wild and scenic river. So, it creates a brand for that river that all of the communities appreciate.
So that's the purpose of the Wild and Scenic Act. There are also kind of different...because they're different values of different rivers, sometimes it's just a recreational value and that's spectacular. We are working to have wild and scenic designations not just be off in the wilderness, off in the middle of nowhere but, you know, near cities, near towns. And let's celebrate and protect a stretch of river that's closer to people and that may not be perfectly pristine but it has some important values, maybe some important habitat. And let's protect that stretch of river and celebrate that with a community and allow that community to rally around that river. So yes, Wild and Scenic Act at the federal level and at the state levels are important tools in reconnecting people to rivers that are protected.
Tom R.: Yeah, that's an important point that you made, that these aren't all in wilderness areas. I know that when the law was first passed, President Johnson and even Martin Luther King both wanted to make sure that there were rivers that were close to urban areas so that everyone could enjoy these rivers. They didn't have to, you know, go to the "River of no Return" in Idaho or something. They could...I think parts of the Potomac are included in this, aren't they?
Tom K.: I would have to look into that. I'm not aware off the top of my head. But this is...just to reenforce what you were saying and I was alluding to, we want people to celebrate their local nearby river and a lot of times frankly these can be very low-income communities in urban settings that don't have access to some wild, pristine river but daggum, they've got a river right there. But it is maybe too polluted at the moment. And so, our goal is to work some of that...we're restoring the water quality, restoring river health in and around these cities, get that river protected and then we've got...maybe it's a low-income community or a diverse community, have the access right there with their river to get to know their river, to celebrate the river, to picnic by the river, etc. So, we're doing everything possible at American Rivers to partner with local community groups. I mean, they need to take the lead on this but we wanna support them, help them in any way we can because this is, you know, if you will, their river. Often, it's their source of drinking water.
Tom R.: Yeah.
Tom K.: And we want them, you know, to be able to fish in their river or to recreate on it. And so that is an important part of, I know, our work and, I think, other groups to have these laws and river protection tools be deployed close to communities even if the river's not perfectly pristine. Let's improve its health and allow everybody everywhere access to clean, healthy water.
Tom R.: Well, I wanna thank you for all the amazing work that you and your staff does. American Rivers is a great organization. And thank you for taking the time to come on the podcast today and educate us a bit on, you know, some of these laws and some of the...I don't know. Laws. Some of the laws, some of the regulations that affect our rivers, our drinking water and our swimming water and our fishing water. So, thank you, Tom.
Tom K.: Well, Tom, you're very welcome. Very pleased to join you. Dearly appreciate the partnership with Orvis and, you know, look forward to working with all of your listeners in restoring and enjoying our rivers throughout the country. They're a tremendous resource. They are with climate change, with biodiversity loss, with increased pollution from runoff, our beloved rivers are seeing some significant and growing threats. So, I'm thrilled to help get the word out and kinda build the political voice of those of us that love rivers, that love clean water to make sure our voice is heard in state capitals and in Congress. So again, thank you, Tom, for inviting me and thanks to Orvis for the partnership.
Tom R.: Well, thank you for magnifying, helping to magnify all those voices of us individuals that care about these things.
Tom K.: Good. All right. Onward together.
Tom R.: Yep. And again, American Rivers can be found at and...
Tom K.: Exactly. Encourage folks to join and go online and join online and you'd be one of our over 300,000 members and we appreciate each and every one and our many partner organizations. So please join.
Tom R.: Okay. Thank you, Tom.
Tom K.: All right. Thanks, Tom. Take care.
Tom R.: Okay. Bye, bye.
Tom K.: Bye, bye.
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