For nearly 50 years, the Clean Water Act’s definition of which water bodies across the country are protected from pollution enabled states and local communities to safeguard our nation’s rivers, streams, wetlands and other waterways.
The value of clean water was broadly appreciated and understood. President George W. Bush implemented his father’s vision of no net loss of wetlands. President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency sought to clarify and simplify the definition of “Waters of the United States” in 2015 to protect invaluable sources of drinking water and critical wildlife habitat.
But now, in the blink of an eye, President Trump’s EPA threatens to undo all of the progress we’ve made cleaning up and protecting our nation’s treasured waters.
The EPA is proposing to drastically limit the scope of the Clean Water Act and gut existing clean water protections at the behest of polluting industries that profit from weak regulation. The new rule would remove the federal protection of at least 40% of the country’s rivers, streams and freshwater wetlands, undermining the protection that provided greatly improved water quality in many of our waterways.
The Potomac River’s vast improvement in water quality, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities has largely been driven by implementation of the Clean Water Act, one of our nation’s most effective environmental statutes.
The new rule purports to create “clarity, predictability and consistency” in defining “waters of the United States.” Instead, it simply defines away nearly half of the waters of our country from protection, taking away the public’s right to clean water. We have come too far to undo decades of critical protections that cleaned our rivers and streams and stopped pollution.
The Clean Water Act is designed to ensure that Americans could go anywhere in the country and be confident that they could drink the tap water, eat the fish they caught and go swimming. While we have not yet realized that goal, we are making great progress, and the Clean Water Act is responsible for much of it.
The new rule would take away Americans’ right to clean water protections and replace them with the right of polluters to destroy or degrade 40% of the country’s streams, lakes and wetlands.
No scientific basis supports the Trump EPA’s rule. It would eliminate express protection for waters flowing through multiple states and strip protection from ephemeral streams — those that exist from rainfall or snowmelt and form the headwaters of watersheds. In the West, 80–90% of streams are ephemeral. Closer to home, 60 percent of Virginia streams would lose their shield, especially headwater streams in the Shenandoah and Upper Potomac regions of the Potomac’s 14,000-square-mile watershed, which are integral to providing habitat for trout and other popular species, not to mention clean drinking water for almost 6 million people downstream. Miney Branch on the Upper Potomac and Quail Run in the Shenandoah River watershed are merely two examples of thousands of streams in our watershed that would be more vulnerable than ever to pollution.
The rule would also eliminate federal protection for most wetlands. In Virginia, for example, we estimate that up to 80 percent of freshwater wetlands could lose federal protection.
Wetlands are the kidneys of the stream system, absorbing one million gallons of water for every acre. They serve as natural pollution filters, buffers for flooding and critical habitat for migratory waterfowl and other birds. When wetlands are lost, the public suffers from increased flooding, loss of habitat and more pollution — as well as pay to install more-expensive and less-effective engineered infrastructure to try to replace the wetlands functions that have been lost.
The Clean Water Act has played a seminal role in setting us back on the path to clean, healthy rivers, streams and wetlands that provide drinking water, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities for millions of Americans.
The days when the Cuyahoga River burned, the Potomac was called a “national disgrace” and the Chesapeake Bay’s perpetual decline was mourned are over, yet President Trump’s EPA wants to dismantle the protections enabling such great progress.
Our waterways belong to all of us, not to polluters. We need to stand up and defeat this rollback of clean water protections.
Nancy Stoner is president of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network.
The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.