Sustainability Environment

Trump administration rolling back protections on streams and wetlands

wetlands water clean water act Obama rollback Trump WOTUS waters of the united states pollution water quality poor bad environment streams wetlands tributaries oceans drinking
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Story at a glance

  • The Environmental Protection Agency launched its new federal rule that replaces Obama’s Clean Water Act.
  • The new regulation, called Waters of the United States, removes some restrictions that prevented farmers and land developers from working near select waterways.
  • Critics say that this move will jeopardize water quality and lead to increased pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is rolling back federal pollution protections for rivers, streams and wetlands — many essential for clean drinking water — in a move that’s advocated by farmers and other industry leaders but opposed by even the agency’s own scientists.

The new legislation will replace the already-repealed Waters of the United States rule, which, crafted by President Obama, expanded the types of waterways that are federally protected. 

Environmental groups are criticizing the new rule. For instance, the nonprofit American Rivers denounced the decisions as a “a crippling blow” to the protection of more than half the country’s wetlands and about 20 percent of its rivers and streams.

Trump’s EPA proposed the new Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule in December 2018, in collaboration with the Department of the Army. It was finalized at the end of December 2019.

Key features of the new law would change the definitions of protected waters. Previously protected under the Clean Water act, for instance, waste treatment systems like treatment ponds and lagoons are no longer considered “waters of the United States,” according to the EPA.

Trump’s new act is likely aimed at benefiting farmers and real estate developers, as it loosens regulations surrounding development around waterways. The move may make it easier to begin projects along jurisdictional waterways and wetlands, according to an analysis by the American Bar Association. Permits and other approval from the EPA or Army Corps will also likely be easier to attain and save project costs, as well as incentivize new developments. 

Farmers who work on land near select streams and waterways may also be able to use previously forbidden chemical pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers that the Clean Water Act restricted to prevent runoff. 

“President Trump is restoring the rule of law and empowering Americans by removing undue burdens and strangling regulations from the backs of our productive farmers, ranchers, and rural land-owners,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “The days are gone when the Federal Government can claim a small farm pond on private land as navigable waters.”

Several environmental advocacy groups have criticized the legislation, saying it will undermine regulations that prevent pollution.

In the same press release, Bob Irvin, President and CEO of American Rivers, said Trump’s so-called ‘Dirty Water Rule’ is “an affront to the health and safety of hundreds of millions of people across the country who depend on rivers and streams for clean water. It 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.”

Another aspect of the legislation is its new limits on federal regulations of U.S. waters, granting states more control over what kind of development can happen around them. 

Professor of environmental law Patrick Parenteau told Environmental Protection that some conservative states saw the Clean Water Act as a hindrance to farmers’ economic development. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa also brought up this point in his opposition to the Clean Water Act.

This is great news for accountability in government,” Sen. Grassley said of Speaking about WOTUS’s initial introduction. “This was a bad regulation drafted under a bad process. The EPA over-reached its authority and ignored and manipulated legitimate concerns raised by the public. Farmers, land owners and builders in Iowa struggled to make sense of the regulation.” 

But, experts also see the more-lenient act as a serious threat to drinking water quality. The New York Times reported that 41 scientists on the EPA’s own Science Advisory Board said the new water law “neglects established science” by “failing to acknowledge watershed systems.”

Similarly, some small streams and wetlands, which feed into larger bodies of water essential for providing drinking water for every 2 in 3 Americans, are now more vulnerable under Trump’s legislation, according to American Rivers. 

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the rule is set to be published in the Federal Register in late February and will be effective 60 days afterwards.