“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” Back in 1976, Norman Maclean understood the interconnectedness of the waters of the United States. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is having trouble understanding the basic concept that all water is connected. Last week, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler unveiled the finalized Navigable Waters Protection Rule, a stark rollback of President Obama’s Waters of the United States rule and an unprecedented weakening of the 1972 Clean Water Act. This new rule is not just a devastating blow to our fisheries and habitats; this rule will threaten clean drinking water across the country.
As many may know, the Trump administration’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule, is the culmination of a sustained effort to substantially weaken the Clean Water Act–specifically the Obama administration’s 2015 Waters of the United States Rule, which protected small headwaters and millions of acres of wetlands. Back in the fall of 2019, the Trump administration finalized the withdrawal of that rule. However, the Trump administration took their attack one step further; after finalizing the withdrawal of the Obama definition of “waters of the United States,” the administration is now providing its own definition for the law.
Under the new rule, millions of miles of smaller headwater streams and millions of acres of wetlands will lose protections and be exposed to industrial and agricultural pollution. Only “territorial seas and traditional navigable waters; perennial and intermittent tributaries that contribute surface water flow to such waters; certain lakes, ponds, and impoundments of jurisdictional waters; and wetlands adjacent to other jurisdictional waters” would still be protected. However, this rule will remove protections for groundwater, wetlands not connected to major tributary or jurisdictional waterways, and ephemeral waterways (which flow only occasionally due to storm runoff or snowmelt), and water features commonly found in agricultural landscapes. To be clear, an EPA study found that 59% of all streams in the United States–excluding Alaska–are ephemeral or intermittent. Many of these streams would not be subject to federal protections and thus subject to destructive chemical pollution and physical alterations.
That same EPA study highlighted the extreme vulnerability of the American Southwest–Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and California. That region is especially vulnerable to harmful effects from this rule change, because 81% of the region’s streams are ephemeral or intermittent. Water is a dominant issue in the American West, and this rule will ignite heightened disputes and legal challenges for this quenched region. This administration is allowing the essential water in this region to become more and more polluted and less suitable for humans, fish, and wildlife.
Further, the scientific integrity of the Trump administration’s rule change has been repeatedly called into question. The EPA’s own Science Board offered a rejection of the Trump administration’s rule. The report notes, “the proposed revised definition of WOTUS [waters of the United States] decreases protection for our Nation’s waters and does not support the objective of restoring and maintaining ‘the chemical, physical and biological integrity’ of these waters” and “the proposed Rule neglects established science pertaining specifically to the connectivity of ground water to wetlands and adjacent major bodies of water.” Those excerpts are quotes from EPA’s very own scientists.
Experts and advocates are also offering stark criticism. An environmental law professor at Vermont Law School said, “this is rolling back federal jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act further than it’s ever been before.” Gina McCarthy, who was the EPA Administrator who finalized the 2015 Waters of the United States Rule and now heads up the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “this effort neglects established science and poses substantial new risks to people’s health and the environment. We will do all we can to fight this attack on clean water. We will not let it stand.” American Rivers CEO, Bob Irvin, said the Trump administration’s dirty water rule, “is reckless and capricious, reversing the Clean Water Rule which was firmly based on sound legal and scientific analyses, extensive fact-finding and stakeholder input, and broad popular support.”
The scientists clearly do not agree with this rule change, but politicians and agency officials who formally lobbied for energy companies must know better. Ironically, when EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler unveiled the finalized rule, he was not at an official EPA briefing, or even in the nation’s capital. Rather, he unveiled this science-ignoring rule in Las Vegas, at a conference for the National Association of Home Builders–a sector that will directly benefit from the rule. The hypocrisy is striking and appalling.
All water is connected. Yet, the Trump administration’s rule ignores that simple and undisputed fact. This rule will result in more polluted water and harmed habitats all throughout the country to the benefit of industry. “You can bet on gravity every time. Whatever is in our headwaters will ultimately end up in our own backyards,” said Trout Unlimited President and CEO Chris Wood. This rule will inevitably be challenged in courts, possibly ending up before the Supreme Court, but in the meantime, our nation’s waters are undeniably in more danger today than in recent history.