A decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to roll back clean water protections is bad policy joined with bad science.
By changing the Clean Water Act’s definition of “the waters of the United States,” the EPA has jeopardized the quality of the very waters the agency is charged with protecting. Congress should amend the act to void the changes and codify a meaningful definition of protected waters based on science.
Many smaller water sources are excluded from EPA jurisdiction by the new rule, which keeps federal protection for only four types of waters: seas and navigable rivers and lakes; tributaries to those rivers; some ponds and reservoirs; and wetlands (provided they are adjacent to other waters under federal protection).
The new rule strips current protections for groundwater, intermittent creeks and rivers — which provide much of the water for Western states after rain or snow — and most small tributaries.
It also cuts protection for many smaller lakes and ponds that aren’t considered navigable. Notably, large-scale irrigation canals — a major source of chemical and biological contaminants according to the EPA — would no longer be subject to federal protections.
The EPA’s own science advisory board opposed the changes as a rejection of recognized science. The board said in a commentary that the changes “are proposed without a fully supportable scientific basis, while potentially introducing 8 substantial new risks to human and environmental health.”
The board was ignored.
If the new EPA definition incorporated in The Navigable Waters Protection Rule stands, dumping of pesticides and other noxious substances would be allowed to foul many wetlands and streams. Groundwater would also lose protections.
The new definition fails to recognize that smaller streams, wetlands and groundwater eventually flow into larger waters — endangering the lakes and rivers that remain protected. Those lakes and rivers provide drinking water to millions of Americans.
Trading clean water for political payback is disturbing, and this decision is a clear case of political payback to the president’s supporters. The new definition made its debut at a meeting of the National Association of Home Builders. Developers, ranchers, farmers and oil and gas companies all supported trashing the existing definitions.
Helping the economy was one reason the administration gave for the changes. The economy is doing fine, as President Donald Trump has reminded us often. In the long run, a strong economy is dependent on the availability of clean water.
Presidents often reward their election supporters via policy choices and political appointments, but jeopardizing clean water goes too far.
Some of the regulations being discarded were implemented during the presidency of Barack Obama, but others go back decades. Because the 1972 Clean Water Act does not define “the waters of the United States,” the definition has been determined by regulation.
While a few wealthy states such as California have the ability to enforce regulations to maintain water safety, most states simply can’t afford to protect their waters.
The EPA cannot be permitted to ignore established science. Congress should act to rectify a policy endangering the health of the nation’s waters.
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette