EPA pretends climate change and water quality are separate issues — they're not

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler took to the morning news this week to serve the American public a heaping of hypocrisy on the Trump administration’s commitment to keeping our country’s water clean.

Wheeler declared that shrinking access to clean water is the most serious environmental threat we’re facing, even more so than the effects of climate change. While we don’t disagree that access to clean water is a huge issue, what Wheeler failed to mention was not only the link between climate change and clean water, but that the Trump administration has been actively working to undermine the very programs that protect clean water — the cause he cites as a priority for the EPA.

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Wheeler’s statements reflect an unwillingness to accept the impact of climate change on global resources, including water. A changing climate is and will continue to result in changing water quality in drinking water sources, prompting public health risks and costly new treatment changes. Climate change affects our water, and we can’t protect our water and ignore the threats from climate change.

But even worse, Wheeler’s statements ignore the many ways this administration is attacking the programs that protect clean water. Trump’s budget proposal includes a 39 percent cut in funding for programs which protect our water against pollution and contamination, including an unprecedented $874 million cut to clean water infrastructure, which supports the construction of water treatment facilities. Trump’s budget also slashes categorical grants to assist state clean water programs by more than $260 million, a whopping 62 percent cut.

Trump also wants to eliminate millions in funding for critical EPA programs, and going so far as to gut programs like the South Florida geographic program, which helps ensure that clean water flows through Everglades National Park, and the state-federal pollution monitoring partnership that has resulted in improved water quality for the Everglades. The budget proposal cuts millions more in funding for important programs targeting lead risk reduction, river water contamination monitoring, water infrastructure along the U.S.-Mexico border, and evaluations for toxic chemicals that can negatively impact our health.

Wheeler even touts new EPA initiatives around oil and gas wastewater treatment and recycling. This is remarkably risky given that we don’t know enough about this waste stream to suggest that we can be cavalier in our approach to disposal, potentially putting water resources and drinking water at risk.

Trump’s proposal includes a 34 percent cut in grants made to states to ensure drinking water meets federal standards. Despite overwhelming evidence that lead in our children’s drinking water remains a serious threat to our children’s health, potentially stunting their growth and development, the Trump administration is eager to cut funding for the programs that keep them safe. With this approach to governing, it will be our children, unfortunately who will bear the burden of this administration’s radical choices and anti-clean water agenda.
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But it isn’t just funding cuts that endanger our water. Extreme cuts to federal safeguards that protect the sources of our drinking water put the health and well-being of our communities in jeopardy. In February, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers opened a short public comment period on a proposal to roll back federal protections for streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act. The proposal would favor corporate polluters and those eager to exploit our public lands over clean drinking water for millions of Americans at risk — and devastate coastal communities across the country.

Wheeler’s insistence that climate change and access to safe drinking water are unrelated sends the message that he puts the interest of industry before the safety of families and future generations. Wheeler knows that man-made climate change is already damaging natural resources around the world, including water supplies, yet, he has directed his agency to treat these issues as unrelated.

While it may be convenient for Wheeler to deny the relationship between climate change and limited access to clean water, it is dishonest and irresponsible.

Despite Wheeler’s claims about efforts to protect clean water sources, Trump’s budget proposal, and its historic cuts to vital EPA programs, reveals the administration’s real priorities, and protecting our water is not among them. Though Wheeler claims to care deeply about protecting and expanding access to clean water, his record certainly doesn’t show it.

Bob Wendelgass is president and CEO of Clean Water Action. Follow the organization at @cleanh2oaction.