Trump Repeals Key Elements of Clean Water Act

Tom Johnson | January 24, 2020 | Energy & Environment, Water
Three million New Jerseyans depend on drinking water from headwaters and intermittent streams that may no longer be protected by federal law
Credit: Robert Jones from Pixabay
EPA’s action ignores recommendations of president’s own Science Advisory Board on intermittent streams and wetlands.

The Trump administration yesterday finalized repeal of key provisions of the Clean Water Act, stripping away protections for many intermittent streams and wetlands in a step that could impair drinking water and increase flooding, according to critics.

The action, a long-sought priority of President Trump, aims to instill more certainty into what waterways are covered by the federal law, a provision adopted by the Obama administration that opponents called a classic case of regulatory overreach.

“EPA and the Army are providing much needed regulatory certainty and predictability for American farmers, landowners and businesses to accelerate critical infrastructure projects,’’ said Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

But the move, likely to be litigated in court, ignores the recommendations of the president’s own Science Advisory Board and others who argued the intermittent streams and wetlands filter pollution, act as natural flood barriers and provide drinking water to tens of millions of people.

“So much for the ‘crystal clear’ water President Trump promised,’’ said Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “You don’t make America great by polluting our drinking water supplies, making our beaches unfit for swimming, and increasing flooding risk.’’

Left without federal protection

More than half of the streams in the Delaware River Watershed could be left without federal protections, according to an Environment America analysis. Three million people in New Jersey depend on drinking water from headwaters and intermittent streams that may no longer be protected, said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

“It is nonsensical that pollution that muddies headwaters won’t affect the entire watershed,’’ O’Malley said.

Unlike many other states, however, New Jersey has jurisdiction over federal programs involving wetlands and water quality. As part of that oversight, the state regulates transition areas near wetlands and other sensitive areas by requiring buffer zones. That has led some experts to question its impact in New Jersey.

Last spring, however, New Jersey joined with 13 other states and the District of Columbia in opposing the repeal of the Obama-era rule. In that instance, New Jersey argued rolling back standards for protecting wetlands and other areas could have a devastating impact on water quality and potentially increase the risk of flooding.

In a statement, the American Petroleum Institute welcomed the change. “A clear definition of the Waters of the U.S. allows both the federal and state governments to allocate their limited resources more effectively toward the protection of the waters appropriately under their jurisdiction and protection,’’ the group said in a statement.

Revising the definition of ‘clean’

The revised definition identifies four clean categories under the Clean Water Act: territorial seas and traditional navigable waters, like the Atlantic Ocean and Mississippi River; perennial and intermittent tributaries; certain lakes, ponds and impoundments; and wetlands adjacent to jurisdictional waters.

This final action also defined what waters are not subject to federal control, including features that contain water only subject to rainfall; groundwater; many ditches, as well as those on farmland; farm and stock watering ponds; and waste treatment systems.

Like other Trump proposals to ease environmental regulations, the latest rule will likely trigger litigation. “Every citizen deserves clean water, and that’s why we need to fight back against the Trump administration weakening this rule,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.