The Trump Administration has signed new water protection regulations that will be the largest rollback of U.S. water protections since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. The new regulations could result in some states losing up to 80% of previously protected waters. The new regulations roll back federal protections for smaller bodies of water, leaving them subject to development, removal, and pollution. Ephemeral bodies of water—waters that flow part of the year, bodies of water that form from rainfall, groundwater, some wetlands, streams, and waste treatment systems—will no longer be protected by the Clean Water Act. Due to risks to the environment and public health, a coalition of 14 states have sued the EPA over the new regulations.
In May 2015, the Obama Administration established the Clean Water Rule, an EPA regulation that broadened the definition of “Waters of the United States” to apply to 60% of water in the U.S. The rule also limited the amount of pollutants that are allowed into smaller bodies of water. Speaking on the regulation, Obama stated “One in three Americans now gets drinking water from streams lacking clear protection, and businesses and industries that depend on clean water face uncertainty and delay, which costs our economy every day. Too many of our waters have been left vulnerable to pollution.”
Obama’s regulations required developers to go through a tedious and sometimes expensive process to get permits before doing anything that involves altering or dumping in a stream that had federal control. This received a lot of push back and the Trump Administration is attempting to appease these parties with his new regulations.
The Trump Administration justifies removing the protections due to beliefs that they impede economic growth and that federal control of smaller bodies of water infringes on the freedom of landowners to use their land as they see fit. Expected beneficiaries of the new Trump Administration water regulations include agricultural workers, real estate developers, golf course owners, oil and gas industries, and mining operations. Trump stands to benefit personally as the owner of over a dozen golf courses.
Gina McCarthy, the former EPA administrator who implemented the Clean Water Rule in 2015, told National Public Radio that the new regulations pose substantial risk to the environment, are expected to affect drinking water supplies, and create an increased risk of flooding.
The new regulations would allow property developers and landowners to destroy and fill wetlands. The EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board warns that the new regulations fail to appreciate watershed systems, the process of water draining into increasingly larger bodies of water, which results in more pollution entering larger bodies of water that may pose greater risks to public health.
The impact of rolling back the Obama Era Clean Water Rule will be felt broadly. In New Mexico, ephemeral streams impact much larger bodies of water including the Rio Grande. The new regulations could impact the supply of drinking water to 300,000 people in the state. In Colorado, 90% of the streams that run into the Colorado River, which supplies 17 states with drinking water, are created by rainfall and snowmelt, many of those streams will no longer be protected by the federal government.
Main image: illustration by Josh Gates