On Tuesday, the EPA announced proposed changes to the Clean Water Act that would rescind a widening of protection for the nation’s waterways enacted by the same body back in 2015. Called the Waters of the United States, the Obama-era rule meant that tributaries, streams, and wetlands that flowed into larger bodies of water were also protected from pollution. Many in the ag business industry and manufacturing balked at the ruling, considering it a federal overreach. Environmental advocates pointed out that WOTUS protected some 60 percent of the nation’s waterways and a full third of the country’s drinking water.
The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, just three years after Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire, an event still regarded as a ghastly symbol of a nation’s water pollution running unchecked. At first, the law was worded as protecting only navigable and permanent waterways from runoff and direct pollution dumping. But later that decade the EPA moved to expand protection for streams that flowed into larger waterways, as well as wetlands adjacent to those streams, rivers, and lakes.
Of course, since any sizable body of water is essentially downstream from tributaries, there was some confusion about how far the protections of waterways extended. Which tributaries counted? Was any standing water protected? Farmers and industry wanted the narrowest possible definition of a waterway; environmental advocates sought to extend it.
The 2015 WOTUS law finally solidified those boundaries as the EPA put all of the tributary system of the US under federal protection. What was meant to end confusion and protect water sources, important wildlife habitats, and recreation areas also caused an uproar among business interests that affected waterways that sought relief from pollution regulation.
Under the EPA’s new proposal, large bodies of water and the obvious tributaries that flow into them, as well as neighboring wetlands, will still be protected. It’s the ephemeral streams fed only seasonally and during periods of precipitation, the underground creeks and rivers that will lose their protection. This is potentially a huge problem not only for people who depend on these waters for drinking, but for anglers, swimmers, and hikers who enjoy recreating in clean waterways.
If the new rules are formally adopted, not only will the WOTUS law be trashcanned, the Clean Water Act’s expansion will be set back to levels not seen since the 1970s.
“Ephemeral streams are the capillaries of the landscape,” said Chris Wood, President of conservation group Trout Unlimited, in a statement. “For almost 50 years, we have made a national, state and local commitment to keep our rivers fishable, drinkable and swimmable. More than 117 million Americans get their drinking water from small intermittent and ephemeral headwater streams. This is not merely an issue for sportsmen and women. If you turn on the tap and expect your water to be cool and clean, you should care about this proposal.”
“This is an early Christmas gift to polluters and a lump of coal for everyone else,” American Rivers Bob Irvin told AJ in an email. “Too many people in our country, urban and rural, are living with unsafe drinking water. Low-income communities, indigenous peoples and communities of color are hit hardest by pollution and river degradation. Instead of rolling back the rules and creating new loopholes for polluters, we need to strengthen safeguards for the rivers, streams, and wetlands that supply our drinking water.”
And here’s where you come in. The EPA will be holding a 60-day public comment period soon, once the proposal is officially entered into the Federal Register. Here’s what the EPA says about submitting your comment on their website:
Once the public comment period opens, the public is encouraged to submit written comments, identified by Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2018-0149, to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: https://www.regulations.gov. General guidance on making effective comments is available at EPA’s Commenting on EPA Dockets.
Photo: Nathan Anderson