Energy & Environment

Trump’s latest water policy exposes sharp divides

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Democrats and environmental groups on Thursday admonished the Trump administration for issuing a rule they say sets protections for waterways back decades; however, it’s shaping up to be a huge win in GOP-leaning rural America as the Trump campaign eagerly courts farm country ahead of the 2020 election.

Trump’s new rule, the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, would strip federal protections for small bodies of water, something critics say will increase the amount of pollution that flows into larger bodies often relied on for drinking water.

“President Trump is engaging in an all-out assault on our clean water safeguards,” said Madeleine Foote with the League of Conservation Voters. “This gutting of vital Clean Water Act protections takes us backwards on the progress we’ve made in cleaning up our waterways and puts the health of our families at risk for the sole benefit of Trump’s corporate friends.”

She also argued that the rule “will turn our streams into dumping grounds for big polluters and destroy millions of acres of wetlands.” 

Some 2020 candidates also weighed in with a swift rebuke.

“Government works great for giant corporations that want to dump chemicals and toxic waste into streams and wetlands. It’s just not working for families that want to be able to drink water without being poisoned,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “This is corruption, plain and simple.”  

But it was a different story in circles that have long said Obama-era water policies — which protected smaller bodies of water, even some seasonal ones caused by snowmelt — put farmers and businesses in a tough spot by causing confusion and leaving huge swaths of land subject to federal oversight. 

“We are thrilled at the announcement of a new water rule to provide our farming community with certainty and a clear view of how water will be regulated on their land,” said Barbara P. Glenn, CEO of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. “We have been functioning under a tangled patchwork of water regulation for far too long.”

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Chief Andrew Wheeler framed it as a fix to federal overreach. 

“After decades of constant litigation and uncertainty, the Trump administration’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule provides regulatory certainty to American farmers, landowners, businesses and the American public and should significantly curtail the need to hire teams of attorneys to tell them how to use their own land,” he said in a call with reporters. 

The new rule cements a campaign promise from Trump to repeal the Obama-era Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule and replace it with something more friendly to industry.

“President Trump is delivering on his promise to give Americans clean water and clear rules. Regulations must follow the law and be easy for Americans to understand,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement.

“The old WOTUS rule put Washington in control of ponds, puddles, and prairie potholes,” he continued. “The punishing regulation was so confusing that property owners and businesses could not determine when permits were needed.”

But a lack of oversight could lead to an influx of pesticides, fertilizers and other industrial chemicals leaching into bodies of water big and small.

“By removing federal clean water protection from millions of miles of streams and more than half of the nation’s wetlands, this rule will result in more pollution, dirtier water, less certainty and higher costs for everyone except the upstream polluters the Trump Administration wants to protect,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Barrasso’s minority counterpart on the committee.

“It breaks the law and ignores the basic science that tells us our waterways are critically interconnected,” he added. “It defies common sense, which tells us that water flows downhill and downstream, carrying pollution with it.”

Proponents of Trump’s new rule argue that state and local environmental regulations will be a sufficient backstop for stemming pollution of small water bodies.

“This new rule does not reduce or remove environmental protections of any waters — it simply brings clarity to which level of government oversees which body of water under the federal-state partnership established by the Clean Water Act,” the Waters Advocacy Coalition, which includes farm and industry groups, wrote in a statement.

The rule is almost certain to spur legal challenges from a number of environmental groups.

“Destroying half of our nation’s streams and wetlands will be one of Trump’s ugliest legacies,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “We’ll absolutely be fighting it in court.”

Gina McCarthy, a former EPA administrator who now heads the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the rule meant Trump was backtracking on another campaign promise: to leave America with the cleanest water. 

“This effort neglects established science and poses substantial new risks to people’s health and the environment,” she said. “We will do all we can to fight this attack on clean water. We will not let it stand.”

Tags Andrew Wheeler Clean Water Act Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Gina McCarthy John Barrasso Presidency of Donald Trump Tom Carper United States Environmental Protection Agency Water law in the United States Water politics Water pollution in the United States

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