Op-Ed: Weakening of Clean Water Act Threatens Stream Quality

Bill Kibler | February 3, 2020 | Opinion
Calling on New Jerseyans to take action against EPA’s new rule because it means fewer protections for drinking water, greater public health risks
Bill Kibler

Headwaters streams — the very waterways that give the Raritan Headwaters Association its name — just lost significant protections under the federal Clean Water Act.

On Jan. 23, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized a new rule redefining the “waters of the United States” to exclude nonnavigable waters like small tributaries that run intermittently or run temporarily underground, along with a large number of wetlands.

Nationally, it’s the worst thing to happen to clean water in the past 50 years.

What does it mean to local residents? First and foremost, the weakening of the Clean Water Act means fewer protections for the water we drink — and, therefore, greater threats to human health.

When the rule change takes effect in about 60 days, many small streams and wetlands will no longer be protected from polluters discharging poisons into waterways. Many wetlands may be destroyed. In many cases, developers, mining companies, and the oil and gas industry will not need permits to destroy these fragile ecosystems.

Headwaters streams are where our clean drinking water begins. These small streams flow into larger streams which, in turn, flow into the rivers that are major sources of public drinking water. Headwaters streams also replenish the groundwater that feeds household wells.

The rule change makes no sense. It is economically irresponsible, scientifically unsound, and socially unjust. To protect the quality of navigable waters, you’ve got to protect the streams that feed them. And it’s easier and cheaper to keep water clean in the headwaters streams than to try to fix polluted waters downstream later.

We in New Jersey are more fortunate than folks in many other parts of the country, as our state water regulations are more stringent than federal regulations, but now we’re facing some critical gaps in protection.

A call to action

As policy director of the nonprofit watershed watchdog Raritan Headwaters, I urge local residents to take immediate action for clean water:

  • Write to your representatives in Washington, D.C., tell them the rollback in clean water protections is wrong, and ask them to restore the protections for small streams and wetlands;
  • Write to your representatives in Trenton and ask them to expand state protections for headwaters streams and wetlands;
  • Get out and vote — for candidates at all levels of government who are willing to protect our clean water.

Thank you for standing up for our water. The upper Raritan River watershed, a 470-square-mile area in Hunterdon, Somerset and Morris counties, has some of the state’s most pristine streams. With your help, they will remain clean and healthy resources now and into the future.