Fed Rollback of Clean Water Rule Could Threaten Half of NJ’s Streams

Repeal could ‘devastate’ Delaware River Basin, according to critics, source of drinking water for 6 million people

More than half of all stream-miles in the Delaware River Watershed could be left without federal protections if the Trump administration repeals the Clean Water Rule, according to an analysis by Environment America.

The analysis, using U.S. Geological and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data, found 55 percent of all stream-miles, or 7,858 miles, in the Delaware basin at risk if the clean water protections are lifted.

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In New Jersey, the analysis showed 4,800 miles of stream threatened, or 49 percent of waters, according to Megan DeSmedt, clean water campaign director for the organization.

“Repealing the Clean Water Rule would be devastating to the Delaware River Basin,’’ DeSmedt said. “Instead of safeguarding our drinking water, Administrator (Scott) Pruitt is proposing to stop protecting drinking water sources for one in three Americans, including 6.2 million people who live in Delaware River basin counties.’’

The rule has been embroiled in controversy for years, with critics saying it is a case of regulatory overreach. It extends the protections of the federal Clean Water Act to intermittent waterways, wetlands, and small ponds, which are sometimes not much more than puddles.

The rule was adopted in 2015 by the Obama administration; however, it never took effect after it was challenged in court.

But proponents argue the rule protects streams and other waters that supply much of the drinking water in the region. More than 6 million people in the basin obtain their drinking water from systems that rely on intermittent, ephemeral, or headwater streams, according to DeSmedt.

“It just seems like common sense,’’ DeSmedt said. “We should have Clean Water protections and they should apply to all waterways.’’

Protecting waterways

The federal Clean Water Act covers most of the programs providing protections to the nation’s waterways, including regulations dealing with stormwater, sewer systems, septic tanks, and nonpoint pollution.

“Everything gets weakened if this rollback happens,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director of Clean Water Action in New Jersey. His national organization has threatened to challenge the repeal if it is adopted. That may happen soon.

The Environmental Protection Agency is publishing a rule tomorrow proposing to repeal the regulation, also known as the Waters of the United States Rule, in the Federal Register. The public will have a 30-day comment period.

The move to repeal the rule suggests the public cannot rely on federal protections as they have in the past, Pringle said. “That makes the Delaware River Basin Commission and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection all the more important,’’ he said.

“New Jersey, unfortunately, does not always do the right thing,’’ said Pringle, referring to a series of rules dealing with water-quality protections adopted by the state the past year. “It needs a federal backstop.’’

Even if a state has strong environmental rules, its waters still can be fouled by actions of other states, he added. “We can’t control what happens upstream in New York and Pennsylvania.’’

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