Watering down water protection

A growing number of scientific reports and news headlines tell a grim tale — the quality and quantity of the U.S. water supply is increasingly threatened by droughts, contamination, algal blooms, severe weather and diminishing groundwater aquifers. Yet, rather than stepping up protections, the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers just signed a proposed rule to revise the definition of the “waters of the United States” in ways that will substantially restrict the waterways protected as part of the Clean Water Act.

Under the new rule, over half of wetlands and almost one-fifth of streams nationwide — including almost 40 percent of streams in the Arid West — will no longer be protected under the Clean Water Act. The interpretation contradicts what had been overwhelmingly upheld by bipartisan administrations since the act was first signed into law by President Nixon.

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The reduced coverage stems from the exemption of seemingly-isolated wetlands and temporary streams that flow after precipitation events. These waters are not irrelevant “puddles”; they recharge groundwater aquifers, prevent floods, trap sediments and pollutants, reduce run-off and lower water treatment costs.

The proposed rule flies in the face of studies indicating that we should be doing more, not less, to protect our waters. Let’s start here: one-quarter of U.S. tap water may be unsafe. While lost access to water in large cities like Flint or Toledo grabs headlines, millions of rural Americans also face a water crisis from pollution due to agricultural run-off, toxins from mining operations, contaminants leaking from coal waste pond, and other causes.

Even in cases where the contributions of a single wetland or stream are small or variable, the collective impacts can be enormous. For example, 58 percent of intermittent, ephemeral and headwater streams feed the public systems that provide drinking water to one-third of Americans in the continental U.S. More than 72 million people get over half of their drinking water from small streams, including over 5 million people each in New York, Texas, and Pennsylvania and over 3 million in Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Maryland and California. As the former head of EPA’s Office of Water, Ken Kopocis explained, "Saying you want clean water and excluding ephemeral streams is like saying you want universal health care, but you won't cover anyone not named Ken".

And despite EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s assurance that the new rule will help Americans spend more time “growing crops to feed our families,” agriculture and farming communities may stand among the losers. According to the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment, declining soil moisture is expected to cause crop productivity to plummet — by up to 75 percent in parts of the Midwest. This doesn’t bode well for the 40 percent of irrigated agriculture that draws from groundwater supplies, which are smaller than originally thought. The new rule is likely to exacerbate problems by compromising our ability to recharge aquifers. So much for Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsInternal poll shows Kobach trailing Democrat in Kansas Senate race Here are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers ramp up Silicon Valley antitrust probe | Treasury sanctions North Korean cyber groups | Thiel to host Kobach fundraiser MORE (R-Kan.) glib declaration that the EPA can now be renamed, the “Environmental Farm Protection Agency.”

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Although the Trump administration and lobbyists stoked fears among farmers that government authorities would regulate ditches and ponds, the reality is that the Clean Water Act and associated regulations already contained “generous carve-outs for farmers”, according to Caitlin McCoy at Harvard Law School. With the proposed change, however, property developers, mining companies, industries, and golf course owners are likely to reap the benefits, whereas the many rural Americans in Trump’s base will bear the brunt of health and economic risks.

Instead of moving our nation forward, instead of safeguarding the healthy environment and clean water that we all need, the proposed rule takes us back as much as "five decades in our effort to clean up our waterways”, as explained by Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, and “will actually pave the way for pollution." In Bangladesh, there is a proverb about water: “The other name for water is life.” Make no mistake: Eroding protections for our nation’s waters is short-sighted and undermines the health, security and prosperity of Americans. 

Amanda Rodewald is the Garvin professor and senior director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University and faculty fellow at Cornell University's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.