As part of his rambling speech delivered to House Republicans on Thursday night, Donald Trump once again claimed that America had the “cleanest water” in its whole “25 years” since people first arrived in North America. That cleanest water claim is one that Trump has made over and over. What he has never provided is a single example of something he’s done to make the water cleaner. Sure, he’s relaxed laws to allow more waste from factory farms, from mining operations, from coal slurry, and from industrial runoff, but those are all things that make water worse, not better. However, Trump continues to make this claim, unchallenged, time and again.
And now Trump is making the water even ”cleaner” … by rolling back critical protections. As Politico reports, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has already signed a notice eliminating a rule designed to protect small streams and endangered wetlands. The Clean Water Rule, instituted by President Obama in 2015, replaced a set of overlapping and contradictory rules that were entangled in court challenges with a single, consistent set of federal protections. Without it, no one—no one—knows what waters are protected, and which are not.
Because the Clean Water Rule replaced earlier regulations, the repeal of that rule means that control over anything smaller than a navigable river is essentially nonexistent. That includes sources of drinking water for 117 million Americans. That includes stripping regulation from the smaller rivers and headwaters that provide the backbone of hotly debated water supplies in the Western states.
Creating the Clean Water Rule was the work of years. It not only included a carefully structured legal framework for dealing with issues of water rights, but featured extensive scientific data and analysis showing why the rule was necessary. To end the Clean Water Rule, the EPA should have had to provide both public notice of intent, addressed those earlier analysis, and explained how these changes would deal with the legal issues handled by the rule. None of that happened.
Wheeler has made a number of speeches about ending “stifling” legislation and how getting rid of the rule will create “innovation.” Some of that innovation will apparently be in how Americans deal with the water wars the abrupt removal of the Clean Water Rule could create.
In the way it is dealing with both the Clean Water Rule and the Waters of the United States definition, the EPA is purposely removing regulation from small streams, ponds, lakes, wetlands, and temporary water features. The purpose of clearly defining which water features fall under federal regulation was to eliminate the case-by-case nature of previous regulation that resulted in a tangle of cases and countercases, many of which had become so convoluted that enforcement was impossible. The Clean Water Rule provided “certainty and clarity” in defining protected water vs. non-protected water. That certainty had benefits for landowners, municipalities, and industry, all of whom knew exactly what to expect when citing a facility. By throwing out the rule and reintroducing a case-by-case system, Wheeler’s action threatens to create a water-to-the highest-bidder system, where those who can afford to mount, and win, lawsuits gain control of water resources.
The repeal of the rule is also ecologically devastating, particularly for migratory birds, who count on temporary waters like seasonal wetlands and temporary pools known as “prairie potholes” that were protected under the Clean Water Rule. Without those sources of water and shelter, the precipitous decline of many species can be expected to continue and accelerate.
There’s no doubt that these rules were not popular with mining companies, oil companies, factory farms and the chemical industry—because all those of those industries were previously treating stream beds and wetlands as convenient dumping grounds. The Clean Water Act provided, for the first time, a way to limit the waste and effluent being dumped into waters that don’t stay in small streams, but ultimately flow across a vast swath of the nation.
The elimination of that rule represents a threat to America’s water. The way it’s been done represents a threat to the whole system of environmental regulations that has existed since the EPA was created.