Warnings that Trump Change to Clean Water Act Would Be Bad for NJ Rivers

Tom Johnson | December 12, 2018 | Energy & Environment
Proposal would revise Obama rule that extended protections to small streams, wetlands and intermittent waterways

Loantaka stream
The Trump administration yesterday proposed changes to a controversial component of the Clean Water Act, a proposal denounced by New Jersey’s top environmental official as likely to increase flooding and threaten water quality in the state.

The proposal by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Department of the Army would repeal a 2015 Obama-administration rule that extended protections to small streams, wetlands and intermittent waterways in what critics called a classic case of regulatory overreach.

If adopted, the new rule would narrow the definition of what waters would be subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act, providing more clarity and predictability to landowners to understand where the law applies and where it does not. (The Clean Water Act covers most programs providing protections to the nation’s waterways, including regulations dealing with stormwater, sewer systems, septic tanks and direct discharges into streams.)

President Donald Trump ordered the rollback revising the definition of “waters of the United States’’ in an executive order back in 2017. The new definition will result in significant cost savings, protect the nation’s navigable waters and reduce barriers to business development, according to the EPA.

“Our simpler and clearer definition would help landowners understand whether a project on their property will require a federal permit or not, without spending thousands of dollars on engineering and legal professionals,’’ EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a press statement.

Fewer wetlands and waterways would be protected

But New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe said the rule will severely limit the number of wetlands and waterways protected by the Clean Water Act, penalizing states the prioritize clean water and public health.

“It creates a ‘race to the bottom’ encouraging states to loosen their own regulations and penalizing those that truly protect their residents and public health,’’ said McCabe, a former deputy regional administrator at the EPA’s Region II offices in New York.

The proposal already has triggered challenges in the court, much as the 2015 rule adopted by the Obama administration had. Eventually a federal judge vacated the Obama rule.

New Jersey has some of the strongest laws protecting waterways, including authority to oversee jurisdiction for all state wetlands except for the saltwater marshes of the Hackensack Meadowlands, according to Dan Van Abs, an associate professor in the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University.

“New Jersey laws are more stringent than federal laws and the concern is primarily for wetlands degradation in neighboring states that lack our stringent state laws,’’ Van Abs said. That could put many rivers at risk in New Jersey, he said. Among them are rivers that begin in New York state and flow into New Jersey, including the Ramapo, Delaware, Hackensack and Wanaque Rivers.

Business groups like it

“This will cut back crucial protections of wetlands and waterways currently protected by the federal Clean Water Act, and set back water quality improvements along the Raritan, Hackensack, Passaic and Hudson Rivers and throughout the Hudson Raritan Estuary,’’ said Greg Remaud, of NY/NJ Baykeeper.

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More than half of all stream miles in the Delaware River Watershed could be left without federal protections if the rule is adopted, according to an analysis of the proposal by Environment America, a nonprofit environmental organization.

“This rollback is a direct attack on headwaters and wetlands,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “The President just took a steam shovel to half of the waterways in the Delaware Watershed.’’

More than 16 million people in four states depend on the Delaware River for their drinking water.

The proposal, however, garnered praised from business groups.

“This new rule is good news for business, farmers and localities because it strikes a better balance between economic growth and environmental progress than the rule it replaces,’’ said Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Energy Institute.