Ripple Effect: When politics ignores science, it jeopardizes local clean water

Ripple Effect: When politics ignores science, it jeopardizes local clean water
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Nine states are suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for “trying to use the current public health crisis to sweep environmental violations under the rug,” according to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra

On April 21, the federal government officially finalized rules to quash crucial protections for headland streams and wetlands for all 50 states; the most deliberate weakening of the Clean Water Act (CWA) since it was enacted in 1972.  

The EPA’s website says the CWA, "Established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States." It also says the CWA regulates “discharge of dredged or fill material,” and this counts filling in a stream or wetland. These wetlands and streams are important to protecting water quality and providing wildlife habitat, and these new rules remove protection from about 50 percent of wetlands and as much as 65 percent of the streams in some Great Lakes states. 

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This White House’s deregulation agenda is a bad idea for the water that Michiganders and all other residents of the Great Lakes states rely on and treasure. At a time when Michigan’s waters are threatened by PFAS, toxic algae blooms and combined sewer overflows, we need more robust protections not less. It boggles the mind how Washington, D.C. is unaware or ignorant of how Michigan struggles to provide safe, affordable and accessible drinking water to our families. 

The Trump administration’s political selections have leveraged industry heads that are harming our region’s natural resources with unscientific and destructive threats to our inland waters and wetlands, which threatens America’s world-class Great Lakes. This should concern every Michigander and all Americans since water is essential for life. In Michigan, caring deeply about water is an important part of being a Michigander. We hold a special connection to the bodies of water in and around our state — from Lake Michigan to each local river and stream. 

How serious are these Clean Water Act rollbacks? 

Consider how Lake Erie was “dead” and rivers caught fire before that monumental piece of legislation. Since then, we’ve made a lot of progress in cleaning up our lakes and rivers. Through the years we’ve also learned more about how critical our headland streams and wetlands across Michigan are for filtering water, recharging aquifers and providing habitat for wildlife and plants. Thankfully, the Clean Water Act has been there to leverage that knowledge. The result has been cleaner water and better stewardship of these important streams and wetlands.

But now, the rollbacks will remove these vital protections for many headland streams and the wetlands often adjacent to those streams. This action will have a devastating domino effect. Those bodies of water are connected to the rest of our surface waters. Any pollution in one, or outright destruction, impacts water quality downstream and the communities they supply. By rolling back science-based protections for those critical streams and wetlands we endanger not just those waters and wetlands, but the water quality in the rest of our streams, rivers and lakes. 

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Officials in our state understand these potentially tragic ramifications. In fact, Michigan’s own Department of Energy, Great Lakes and the Environment (EGLE) advocated for significant changes in the proposed rules. In their comments to the federal government, EGLE pointed out that wetlands filter pollutants and sediments and keep them from reaching streams. In addition, they store flood waters, maintain stream baseflow and provide biological connectivity between habitats. 

Protecting these wetlands and headwaters is not some abstract academic exercise. As of 2009, the federal EPA determined almost 2 million Michiganders got their drinking water through public water supplies relying on surface water. The same research found that 71 percent of those Michiganders’ water sources relied on “intermittent, ephemeral and headwater streams,” which are the very bodies that are being put in jeopardy by these rollbacks. 

This tragedy adds to the many efforts underway to undercut crucial environmental water protections at the federal level. Our water quality is endangered by so many threats like lead in drinking water, toxic forever chemicals known as PFAS and combined sewer overflows. We simply can’t allow this damage to the water we hold so dear. We need to do more, not less to protect water. That’s part of being a Michigander.

Nathan Murphy has a Ph.D in Ecology and is the state director of Environment Michigan; a state-wide, citizen-led environmental advocacy nonprofit that works for clean water, clean air and renewable energy.